State to Transfer Inmates from Prisons Plagued by Valley Fever

By Julie Small, KPCC

Aerial view of Avenal State Prison, near Coalinga in the Central Valley, where inmates have been hit hard by Valley Fever. (Buzzbo/Flickr)

Aerial view of Avenal State Prison, near Coalinga in the Central Valley, where inmates have been hit hard by Valley Fever. (Buzzbo/Flickr)

Two Central Valley prisons are plagued with Valley Fever, and now California officials have agreed to transfer thousands of inmates. The action comes a week after a federal court moved to enforce a new prison medical policy. That policy bars the state from housing inmates who are susceptible to the fungal disease in the prisons where Valley Fever is most prevalent.

Joyce Hayhoe, a spokeswoman for the federal receiver in charge of prison medical care, says Pleasant Valley and Avenal State prisons in the Central Valley are the prison system’s hotspots. “The overwhelming majority of cases of people coming down with Valley Fever originate from those two facilities,” Hayhoe said.

Eighteen inmates have died from Valley Fever in the last many months, and hundreds more have suffered from its flu-like symptoms.

Earlier this year the federal receiver directed the state to transfer more than 2,500 inmates at the two prisons who are known to be susceptible to the disease. Those susceptible include medically high-risk inmates, such as people undergoing chemotherapy, and all African-American and Filipino prisoners. “The whole point of our directive was to prevent serious illness and death,” Hayhoe said.

The receiver issued his directive in April, a few months after court experts concluded in a report that prison officials’ efforts to control the spread of Valley Fever by treating the soil on prison grounds had failed.

But it took a federal court order in June to get California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to comply.

This move come against the backdrop of a second federal court order to reduce the prison population by 10,000 inmates by the end of the year. As part of that effort, the Corrections Department is preparing to begin transfers of 1,700 acutely ill inmates to a new prison medical facility that has just opened in Stockton. At the opening ceremony last week, Corrections Secretary Jeff Beard said having to orchestrate thousands more transfers at the same time, “makes the situation extremely complex.”

Beard said the receiver’s medical directive forces him to shift thousands of inmates into other facilities that don’t necessarily have room. Beard emphasized a need to be “careful and thoughtful” about next steps “because the last thing we want to do is to destabilize other institutions and then cause other problems.”

The Department has already transferred 560 of the highest risk inmates from Avenal and Pleasant Valley prisons since Jan. 1.

Beard said it would be more prudent to wait to hear from experts at the federal Centers for Disease Control who toured the facilities a month ago — before moving thousands more inmates.

Valley Fever is a fungal infection also called Coccidioidomycosis that can cause flu-like symptoms. It is not contagious. People contract it by inhaling airborne spores dislodged from the soil. California’s Central Valley has the highest rates of the disease in the state while the rate inside Pleasant Valley and Avenal prisons is even higher.

According to a CDC report in March, Valley Fever cases are skyrocketing. Between 1998 and 2011 more than 110,000 cases were reported and about a third of those cases were in California.

California prisons officials have been grappling with Valley Fever since 2006. That’s when California’s Department of Health Care Services found that inmates with compromised immune systems were especially vulnerable. They also found that certain racial groups are more susceptible.

The Corrections Department had previously restricted inmates who suffer from severe HIV infections from the two prisons and barred inmates with chronic lung diseases that require the use of oxygen tanks.

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