A correctional officer at the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center in Eagle River is back on the job, after state officials say she was treated last week for exposure to the synthetic opioid fentanyl.

The incident, involving a staff sergeant at Hiland Mountain, was reported early Thursday morning. According to Alaska Department of Corrections spokeswoman Sarah Gallagher, the staff sergeant had been conducting an intake process for a new inmate the previous night who attempted to discard the drug by throwing it onto the floor.

“The [staff sergeant] retrieved the evidence and continued on her shift,” Gallagher wrote. “At roughly 3:30 a.m., this employee began to feel sick. Due to her possible exposure to narcotics earlier in the evening, the [staff sergeant] conducted a urinalysis on herself that tested positive for fentanyl.”

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintains a website listing health concerns for first responders who may come into contact with fentanyl, a powerful narcotic which can be produced in tablet, powder or liquid forms. The most dangerous means of exposure include inhalation, ingestion and being stuck by needles used to administer the drug.

A training video from the CDC demonstrates potential means of exposure at a site where fentanyl was discovered last year in Virginia. It discusses protective gear, up to and including respirators, which officers may need to wear.

“Skin contact is also a potential exposure route, but is not likely to lead to overdose unless large volumes of highly concentrated powder are encountered over an extended period of time,” CDC officials wrote. “Brief skin contact with fentanyl or its analogues is not expected to lead to toxic effects if any visible contamination is promptly removed.”

Gallagher said the Hiland Mountain staff sergeant was treated by colleagues until medics arrived and took her to Alaska Regional Hospital. After her discharge and home recovery over the weekend, she “is back to work and doing well.”

Although DOC staff use universal precautions when handling unknown substances, Gallagher noted specific concerns linked to fentanyl because "even the most minimal contact can lead to accidental exposure."

“It is important to note that exposure to these dangerous substances is not a risk unique to DOC,” Gallagher wrote. “While our population represents a concentrated example, the same dangers are present every day in our communities. We encourage everyone who encounters any unknown substance to avoid contact and contact law enforcement immediately.”

Five Hiland Mountain inmates were exposed to fentanyl during a 2017 incident, causing four of them to suffer overdoses which they survived. Last year inmate Dorothy Lantz received a 40-month federal sentence for smuggling the drugs involved — 0.38 of a gram — into the facility.

Daniella Rivera contributed to this story.

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