By MIHIR ZAVERI and DON THOMPSON Associated Press
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - An attorney representing inmates at two Northern California prisons told a federal judge on Monday that an airborne fungus occurring in the San Joaquin Valley presents enough of a deadly threat to some inmates at the facilities that they should be transferred immediately.
The fungus causes a disease known as valley fever. Warren George, of the Prison Law Office, said 18 inmates died from complications relating to the fungus in 2012 and the first month of 2013 and more inmates would die if the court waited any longer.
"It will go on, delay means more death," George said.
George rejected state officials' argument that the judge should wait until two national agencies complete studies of the fungus at the prisons before making his decision. The judge made no immediate ruling Monday.
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 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 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.
The corrections department has known about what the experts called a "medical and public health emergency" at the two prisons since 2005.
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.
Walter Schneider, an attorney representing the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, told U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson that the CDC and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health should be allowed to study the issue before the court orders the transfer of 3,250 of 8,100 inmates at the prisons.
"I can tell you both CDC and NIOSH inspected these institutions in early June," Schneider said. "We're expecting preliminary answers to some of our questions."
He said the full study would be completed in six months. The department has already upgraded all its air filtration systems in the prisons' housing units and provided the staff and inmates additional medical training, he said. He also said the state is already in the process of transferring out certain high-risk inmates.
Schneider, additionally, said that such a large transfer of prison inmates would constitute an inmate release order, something that would require a three-judge panel and a full evidentiary hearing.
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.
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.
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.
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