Prison officials said Tuesday that thousands of California prison inmates at risk of contracting valley fever, a potentially deadly fungal disease spreading in the west of the US, will be transferred out of areas where the illness is prevalent.
The statement came after US District Judge Thelton Henderson, ordered the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to move inmates at high-risk of contracting the disease from two prisons that have seen outbreaks of the disease in recent years.
CDCR officials announced Tuesday that they will comply with the order to move about 2,600 inmates considered highly vulnerable to the disease due to factors including age, ethnicity/race and health status. The department was ordered to move the prisoners from the Pleasant Valley Prison and the Avenal Prison within 90 days.
Reuters reports that a CDCR spokesman Jeffrey Callison, said in a statement that the department was uncertain when the movement of the prisoners would be completed and where they would be moved. AP, however, reports that officials could ask for an extension of the time limit. Callison said: "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 to comply with the order if it appears the process may take longer."
It is expected that the inmates will be moved from prisons in the Joaquin Valley where spores which cause the disease are endemic and replaced by inmates will a low risk of the disease.
Pleasant Valley Prison and the Avenal Prison are located 10 miles apart about 175 miles from San Francisco, AP reports.
According to Reuters, the state government resisted suggestions to relocate the prisoners at first, complaining that moving them could interfere with efforts to reduce crowding in California's congested correctional facilities. But the state government finally announced a week after the federal court order that it would comply.
Issues about conditions in California's prison system go back to 2009 when a panel of federal judges ordered the state of California to reduce inmates in its overcrowded prison system, Reuters reports.
The department is still appealing the court order to decrease the state's prison population by 10,000 by the end of the year.
Valley fever or Coccidioidomycosis is a fungal disease caused by microscopic pores of coccidiosis fungus found mostly in the dry soil of the west and southwest of the US and carried in the air with dust. According to the New York Times, the patient is infected after inhaling the spores which lodge in the lungs and may spread to the bones, skin, eyes and sometimes the brain. The The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has described the infection as a "silent epidemic."
Symptoms of the illness include fever, chills, chest pains, muscle aches and in severe cases chronic pneumonia and meningitis. The CDC says about 40 percent of patients need hospitalization. The disease could be fatal, although it is rarely so in otherwise healthy individuals who contract the illness.
Reuters reports that Dr. John Galgiani, director of the University of Arizona Valley Fever Center for Excellence, said about 150,000 Valley Fever infections occur in the US southwest every year, mostly in Arizona. Warren George, an attorney with a nonprofit law firm, the Prison Law Office, which provides free legal assistance to inmates, said 52 California inmates have died of the illness since 2006.
Beside the outbreaks in the California prisons, medical authorities say there has been a general upsurge in the incidence of valley fever in the US in the past 15 years. Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah have recorded the highest rates, a total of 2,265 cases in 1998, which surged in 2012 to 22,401. About 160 people die of the illness every year with thousands facing prolonged disability.
According to the CDC, African-Americans, Filipinos, pregnant women, people suffering debility and immunocompromised persons are at a higher risk of contracting the severe form of the illness.
AP reports that Dr. Joyce Blair, an expert in infectious diseases at the Mayo Clinic in Tucson, Arizona, said it was uncertain why some races were at a higher risk of contracting a severe form of the disease. He said: "Most of the time, these people are otherwise completely healthy. There's probably a genetically inherited deficiency that is very unique [in relation to] valley fever."
The New York Times reports Galgiani said: "The working hypothesis has to do with genetic susceptibility, probably the interrelationships of genes involved in the immune system."
The decision to move prisoners based on racial considerations raised concerns among prison officials. A department spokesperson Deborah Hoffman. told AP that moving a large proportion of inmates of a particular race could cause insecurity. She said: "That can dramatically affect the safety and stability of prisons. We have to be careful about sparking racial and gang violence."
While prison officials are expressing reservations about the order to move inmates, the department and the state have been criticized for not moving the inmates sooner. The New York Times reports that Donald Specter, executive director of the Prison Law office, said: "If this were a factory, a public university or a hotel — anything except a prison — they would shut these two places down."
Some experts feel that the Pleasant Valley prison should be abandoned altogether. Dr. Royce Johnson, professor of medicine at UCLA and expert in valley fever, said: "My own prejudice about Pleasant Valley, a misnamed place if there ever was [one], is the rate of disease is so high the site ought to be abandoned. You cannot tell by looking at someone's skin color what their risk is."
According to AP, an April report by the Receiver's Public Health and Quality Management units said the Pleasant Valley State Prison had a valley fever infection rate about 400 times higher than the county, while the Avenal State Prison had a rate 10 times higher than the county with the highest rate in California.