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Valley Fever concerns force inmate move

The risk of Valley Fever is forcing some inmates out of two local prisons.
(Joe Ybarra Reporting)

The risk of Valley Fever is forcing some inmates out of two local prisons.

Valley Fever is a fungal disease that can be deadly and now thousands of inmates are being relocated from the Avenal and Pleasant Valley state prisons. 

The order was given Monday to remove high-risk inmates, a move that could affect nearly half the population of both prisons.

Health officials say they are only moving the "at risk" inmates.

Valley Fever is a disease caused by a fungus, also known as cocci. It lives in soil, wind picks it up and carries it to the host, where it infects the lungs.

Joyce Hayhoe with the State Correctional Health Care Services said, "For people who are not immune to the cocci fungus, it can be a very, very severe disease resulting in death." 

Hayhoe says both prisons have had a problem Valley Fever for years. "Since 2006, there have been 40 deaths where the primary or secondary cause of death was due to cocci," said Hayhoe.

Hayhoe says the group considered "at risk" are black, Filipino, HIV positive and/or pregnant. The elderly and people with health problems are also susceptible to the disease. 

Between both prisons, there are at least 8,200 inmates. The order given Monday calls for the removal of roughly 3,000. "We couldn't just empty out half of two prisons and put them into other prisons; that just wouldn't work for a variety of reasons," said Jeffrey Callison with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

One of the reasons is overcrowding; the corrections department is already dealing with a December deadline to reduce prison population by 9,000 inmates. 

Callison says at this point, the department is working on a plan to comply with both orders and working on ways to mitigate Valley Fever. "We are working on reducing the amount of dust in and around prisons, issuing surgical masks and making sure our staff and inmates are properly educated," said Callison.

Prison officials say only the highest risk inmates are being moved right now, which is mostly people with health problems.

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