Growing concern over drug exposures sparks changes at Mass. Jail

Officials are concerned about exposure to fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that can cause harmful effects


By Paul Leighton
The Salem News, Mass.

MIDDLETON, Mass. — The Essex County Sheriff’s Department purchased new protective gear for corrections officers and increased training after an officer was administered Narcan for a possible accidental overdose at the Middleton Jail.

Sheriff Kevin Coppinger said the corrections officer was not seriously injured in the incident in November, and the material he came in contact with is still being tested to determine what it was.

But law enforcement and first-responders are becoming increasingly concerned about exposure to fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that can cause harmful effects through inhalation or skin contact. The concern extends to inside the jail due to what officials say has been an increased amount of smuggling of drugs and other materials by people visiting inmates.

The jail is prohibiting visits to inmates for most of this week while a “complete search” of the facility is conducted, Coppinger said.

“Not only are we trying to stop smuggling, we’re trying to take the proper precautionary measures (in handling potentially dangerous substances),” he said.

After the incident in November, the Essex County Correctional Officers Association’s executive board wrote a letter to Coppinger demanding new safety procedures, saying the officer suffered an “accidental exposure overdose” and could have died if he had not been given Narcan, which reverses opiate overdoses.

The letter said the executive board was “deeply and immediately concerned that this recent incident points out a glaring hole in safety procedures, equipment and training, and the ECCOA demands that these problems be addressed without delay.”

Coppinger said it is not clear if the officer suffered an accidental overdose or had another medical issue. He said the officer was in the emergency room for only a half-hour and returned to work soon. The substance was sent to the state lab to determine what it was.

“He might’ve had a medical issue or it could’ve been fentanyl, nobody really knows,” Coppinger said. “We’re thrilled the officer was not seriously affected. He bounced right back.”

Messages for the Essex County Correctional Officers Association were not returned.

New gear, training

Coppinger said his department has purchased an assortment of protective suits for corrections officers that include masks, gloves and booties. Last week, the department held training sessions on hazardous materials run by an outside company, he said.

The department has also increased the amount of Narcan available at its facilities and on its transport vans, he said.

“What we try to tell our officers is — and you could say it to the general public, too — you have to approach these situations with common sense,” Coppinger said. “If you see an exposed powder and you think it may be hazardous, call supervisors and we will determine the appropriate response.”

Thorough search

Coppinger said the ban on visits this week will allow staff to search the Middleton Jail “cell by cell” for contraband, including drugs and weapons. It will also allow for more thorough cleaning at the height of flu season, he said.

The visitor ban is scheduled to last until Friday afternoon. It does not apply to inmates’ attorneys, Coppinger said.

Fentanyl can be up to 50 times stronger than heroin, while carfentanil is believed to be 100 times stronger than fentanyl. The drugs have been banned from proceedings in Massachusetts courthouses due to the potential risks of exposure.

In November, the White House released safety recommendations for first-responders handling fentanyl. It said that inhalation of airborne powder is most likely to lead to harmful effects, with skin contact less likely to be harmful if the skin is quickly washed off with water. The guidelines recommend wearing gloves, a mask and eye protection when the presence of fentanyl is suspected.

©2018 The Salem News (Beverly, Mass.)

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