SAN FRANCISCO — An attorney representing inmates at two California state prisons told a federal judge on Monday that an airborne fungus occurring in the San Joaquin Valley presents the deadly threat of valley fever and that thousands should be transferred immediately.
Warren George, of the Prison Law Office, said 18 inmates died in 2012 and January 2013 from complications relating to the fungus that causes valley fever and more inmates would die if the court waited any longer. “It will go on, delay means more death,” George said.
But Walter Schneider, an attorney representing the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, told U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health should be allowed to complete a study of the issue before the court orders the transfer of 3,250 of 8,100 inmates at the prisons. Schneider said the study would be finished by December.
The judge made no immediate ruling Monday.
California Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration has argued in court filings that it is impractical to move so many inmates while the state struggles to comply with another federal court order requiring it to reduce prison crowding statewide as a way to improve conditions for sick and mentally ill inmates.
Nearly three-dozen inmate deaths and hundreds of hospitalizations at Avenal and Pleasant Valley state prisons have been blamed on the fungus that causes valley fever. About half of the infections from the fungus produce no symptoms, while most of the rest can produce mild to severe flu-like symptoms. In a few cases the infection can spread from the lungs to the brain, bones, skin or eyes, causing blindness, skin abscesses, lung failure and occasionally death.
Medical studies have found that black, Filipino and medically at-risk inmates are more vulnerable to health problems from the illness, which is a fungal infection that originates in the region’s soil. The disease is not known to spread from person to person.
The CDC says the number of valley fever cases rose by more than 850 percent nationwide from 1998 through 2011. Valley fever cases in California rose from about 700 in 1998 to more than 5,500 cases in 2011, with the biggest increase in the region where the two prisons are located.
Since 2005, the corrections department has known about what the experts called a “medical and public health emergency” at the two prisons, which sit about 10 miles apart and 175 miles southeast of San Francisco.
The state thwarted a previous study by the CDC in 2008 and balked at spending $750,000 for improvements at one of the prisons in 2007 because of the high cost. Yet the experts noted the state spends more than $23 million annually to treat inmates hospitalized with valley fever.
The federal court-appointed official who controls prison medical care, J. Clark Kelso, has said that inmates who are particularly susceptible to the disease should be moved out of Avenal and Pleasant Valley state prisons.
Kelso and three court-appointed medical experts argued in court filings last month that the state’s resistance not only is potentially deadly to vulnerable inmates, but demonstrates that California is not yet ready to retake control of inmate medical care in the state’s 33 adult prisons.
The corrections department has already upgraded all its air filtration systems in the prisons’ housing units and provided the staff and inmates additional medical training, Schneider said. He said the state is already in the process of transferring out certain high-risk inmates.
The state wants to move about 600 medically high-risk inmates out of the two prisons by August while experts study whether other steps can cut down on the dust that carries the fungus. That includes covering dusty areas, keeping more dust from entering buildings and giving surgical masks to inmates and employees who request them.