Infection Hits a California Prison Hard
By JESSE McKINLEY
COALINGA, Calif. — When any of the 5,300 inmates at Pleasant Valley State Prison begin coughing and running a fever, doctors do not think flu, bronchitis or even the common cold.
They think valley fever; and, more often than they would like, they are right.
In the past three years, more than 900 inmates at the prison have contracted the fever, a fungal infection that has been both widespread and lethal.
At least a dozen inmates here in Central California have died from the disease, which is on the rise in other Western states, including Arizona, where the health department declared an epidemic after more than 5,500 cases were reported in 2006, including 33 deaths.
Endemic to parts of the Southwest, valley fever has been reported in recent years in a widening belt from South Texas to Northern California. The disease has infected archaeologists digging at the Dinosaur National Monument in Utah and dogs that have inhaled the spores while sniffing for illegal drugs along the Mexican border.
In most cases, the infection starts in the lungs and is usually handled by the body without permanent damage. But serious complications can arise, including meningitis; and, at Pleasant Valley, the scope of the outbreak has left some inmates permanently disabled, confined to wheelchairs and interned in expensive long-term hospital stays.
About 80 prison employees have also contracted the fever, Pleasant Valley officials say, including a corrections officer who died of the disease in 2005.
What makes the disease all the more troubling is that its cause is literally underfoot: the spores that cause the infection reside in the region’s soil. When that soil is disturbed, something that happens regularly where houses are being built, crops are being sown and a steady wind churns, those spores are inhaled. The spores can also be kicked up by Mother Nature including earthquakes and dust storms.
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re custody staff, it doesn’t matter if you’re a plumber or an electrician,” said James A. Yates, the warden at Pleasant Valley. “You breathe the same air as you walk around out there.”
The epidemic at the prison has led to a clash of priorities for a correctional system that is dealing with below average medical care and chronic overcrowding.
Last fall, heeding advice from local health officials and a federal receiver charged with improving the state’s prison medical care, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation delayed plans to add 600 new beds out of concern that the construction might stir up more spores.
Officials at the prison blame the construction of a state hospital nearby for causing a spike in valley fever. The construction was under way from 2001 to 2005, and valley fever hit its peak here in 2006, when the disease was diagnosed in 514 inmates.
Real Cost Of Prison