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Officials comment on substance plaguing SCI-Somerset

September 6, 2018

Pennsylvania Department of Corrections officials believe that the substance that sickened 57 prison staff members statewide last week, including 10 incidents at the State Correctional Institute at Somerset, is a synthetic cannabinoid, according to DOC communications director Susan McNaughton.

The last reported incident at SCI-Somerset was on Friday.

“It is my understanding that the makeup of each batch changes, making them difficult to determine what’s in it,” she said. “It can be a solid or a liquid. It’s not like marijuana at all, from what I’m told.”

According to the institute, the substance, referred to as K2, is made of synthetic, mind-altering chemicals that are sprayed on dried, shredded plant material so it can be smoked, or sold as liquids to be vaporized and inhaled in e-cigarettes and other devices. They are called cannabinoids because they are similar to chemicals found in the marijuana plant.

The institute noted that mislabeling the product as being related in some way to marijuana can lead to problems.

“Because of this similarity, synthetic cannabinoids are sometimes misleadingly called synthetic marijuana (or fake weed) and they are often marketed as safe, legal alternatives to that drug. In fact, they are not safe and may affect the brain much more powerfully than marijuana; their actual effects can be unpredictable and, in some cases, more dangerous or even life-threatening,” according to the institute.

The substance can include chemicals found in rat poisoning or weed killer, McNaughton said. “The use of the term marijuana makes people think it’s safe to ingest, and clearly it is not.”

People who come in physical contact with someone who has ingested or smoked K2 can be contaminated through their pores, according to Somerset County Jail Deputy Warden John Caron.

At SCI-Somerset, about a dozen correctional officers and staff have encountered the drug through their contact with inmates or the inmate’s property or cell.

They all indicatedsimilar symptoms — feeling dazed and lethargic, a rapid heart rate.

Last week three prison staff fell ill after passing out the evening meal to inmates in a cell. The inmates were smoking an unidentified substance. A fourth employee was sickened while trying to purge bad air from the cell.

On Tuesday the Somerset County Prison Board was informed by Caron that jail and Somerset Area Ambulance Association officials will meet to discuss procedures for transporting someone who could be contaminated with K2, either inmates or staff.

Somerset Hospital has a decontamination room and a decontamination team that are well-prepared to work with someone who is brought in for treatment of symptoms from encounters with substances such as K2, according to hospital CEO Andy Rush.

The decontamination team wears protective suits and meet the ambulance or police before they get into the hospital if it is known ahead of time the transport is coming, he said. The procedure reduces risk for the community, patients and staff, he said.

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