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Guards, Inmates Treated For Drug Exposure At Ross Correctional Institute

Neil Conway

More than two dozen people have been treated for possible drug exposure at the Ross Correctional Institution in Chillicothe. Medical officials say the health scare was likely caused by some combination of opioids, and all of those sickened are expected to recover.

According to the Ohio State Highway Patrol, the prison reported an inmate exhibiting signs of a drug overdose around 9:10 a.m. Wednesday. The inmate was given the opioid reversal drug Narcan and brought to the hospital.

Authorities then responded to reports of potential exposure from 23 correction officers, four nurses and two inmates. Doctors say the sickest people were those who came to the first inmate's bedside.

"The facility is secure with no safety threat to the public," the Patrol said in a press release.

Emergency responders administered naloxone at prison, and a total 28 people were transported to Adena Regional Medical Center. One inmate was treated at the prison and not transported. As of Wednesday afternoon, almost all patients had been released.

Dr. Kirk Tucker told reports the Chillicothe hospital called in over 100 staffers from across the hospital system, and the medical center was placed on lockdown. Attending doctors and nurses were required to put on protective coverings, and were not allowed to leave the emergency room until they were decontaminated.

"Really, what you're dealing with is something that with minimal contact, you reach and touch a surface, then reach and scratch your eye, you absorb that stuff, and its potency is enormous," Tucker says.

Tucker says the patients ranged in severity of condition.

"The sickest folks that were exposed by the substance came in unconscious and not breathing, so they couldn't control their airway," Tucker said. "The less ill, if you could consider it that, had nausea, a lot of them were very sweaty, lightheaded, they would describe heaviness in their arms and legs and numbness in their hands and feet."

Tucker said the patients were responding well to the prison's deployment of Narcan, a brand of the opioid reversal drug. Additional Narcan supplies came in from the hospital pharmacy and the Ohio Department of Health, because some overdose cases can require multiple doses.

"Narcan was the core of what we did today," Tucker said.

According to the State Highway Patrol, the prison cleared the contaminated block and moved 31 inmates to another part of the facility. Nearby schools were placed on precautionary lockdown, as well.

"A hazardous material decontamination team is en route for cleanup," the release states. "This incident remains under investigation."

As of 2:30 p.m., the Highway Patrol reports there have been no additional cases of exposure. 

State Highway Patrol spokesperson Lt. Robert Sellers tells the Associated Press that contraband fentanyl is suspected. The powerful synthetic opioid could have been dispersed into the air by a fan.

According to Christopher Mabe of the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, opioid addiction is an increasing problem in Ohio's prison system.

"It's something that we consistently try to deal with inside the agencies," Mabe said. "We are way under-staffed in our Department of Corrections, and we still have a large capacity of inmates that we're not used to dealing with."

In May, a former milk delivery man was accused of hiding marijuana, tobacco and cell phones inside milk cartons and smuggling them into a southwest Ohio prison. Last September, the Richland County Jail in Mansfield started operating a body scanner to detect drugs.

And in February 2017, four inmates overdosed within two days at Pickaway Correctional Institution, requiring CPR and doses of anti-overdoses drugs.

Messages were left for the prisons system.

The prison is about 44 miles south of Columbus.

This article will be updated with more information as the story develops.

Gabe Rosenberg joined WOSU in October 2016. As digital news editor, Gabe reports breaking news and edits all content for the WOSU website, as well as manages the station's social media accounts.