Inmates to be moved from two prisons because of valley fever threat

Published: Wednesday, Jul. 3, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 3A
Last Modified: Thursday, Jul. 4, 2013 - 12:12 pm

California corrections officials announced Tuesday they will comply with a federal judge's order to move inmates at risk of contracting valley fever out of two San Joaquin Valley prisons.

Just how this is to be done remains unclear.

Jeffrey Callison, spokesman for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said in a prepared statement that the agency "is now working on the complicated logistics of transferring approximately 2,600 … inmates who may fall under the court's order."

In anticipation of a recurrence of the infrequently deadly disease – caused in agricultural areas by airborne dust that enters the lungs as a fungus when spores are inhaled – the department has moved 560 medically high-risk inmates out of the two institutions since Jan. 1, Callison said.

U.S. District Judge Thelton E. Henderson of San Francisco ordered all African American and Filipino prisoners moved out of Pleasant Valley and Avenal state prisons. They are considered to have an increased risk of contracting valley fever, clinically known as coccidioidomycosis.

About two-thirds of the people who are infected never notice any symptoms, or experience symptoms so mild they do not seek treatment. Symptoms include fatigue, cough, chest pain, fever, rash, headache and joint aches. Some people develop red bumps on their skin.

About 5 percent of those who are infected develop what is referred to as a "lung cavity." This is most common with older people, and more than half of the cavities disappear without treatment. If the lung ruptures, however, there may be chest pain and difficulty breathing.

Less than 1 percent of the people who get valley fever die from it.

There is no vaccine for it. Antifungal drugs are used to treat it, sometimes with success and sometimes not.

Inmates who have previously been diagnosed with valley fever are exempt from Henderson's June 24 order, and inmates who do not wish to be transferred may opt out, according to Callison.

Henderson, who oversees physical health care in the state's 33 adult prisons by virtue of a long-standing class-action lawsuit on behalf of sick inmates, gave corrections officials 90 days to accomplish the mass transfer. The deadline is Sept. 22.

Callison indicated there is not yet a definitive plan as to how the formidable task will be handled.

"Despite the challenges, the state will make every effort to fully comply with the federal order within 90 days, but may request an extension of time … if it appears the process may take longer," Callison said.

Call The Bee's Denny Walsh, (916) 321-1189.

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