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Friday, Feb 07 2014 07:23 PM

Prison guards want ability to transfer to avoid valley fever

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    Inhaling the spores of the fungus that causes valley fever can cause lung and other problems, and even lead to death.

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BY CHRISTINE BEDELL AND COURTENAY EDELHART Californian staff writers cbedell@bakersfield.com and cedelhart@bakersfield.com

The union that represents state prison correctional officers said Friday that it asked the state months ago to make it easier for members at high-risk of contracting valley fever to transfer to other facilities -- and never heard back.

The statement came a day after federal health officials released a report saying that at Avenal and Pleasant Valley state prisons, three employees have died of and 103 have been sickened by valley fever over the last four years.

The threat of valley fever to employees at Avenal in Kings County and Pleasant Valley in Fresno County has been a "big concern" to the California Correctional Peace Officers Association for a while, said spokesman Jevaughn Baker.

Baker on Friday forwarded to The Californian a letter the union sent the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in July asking that employees at high risk of contracting valley fever be free to transfer to other facilities.

The state has frozen employee transfers between prisons in an effort to make sure all facilities are adequately staffed.

CCPOA has been concerned since the state was ordered to move about 2,600 inmates at risk of contracting valley fever out of Avenal and Pleasant Valley, Baker said.

The order mostly applied to black or Filipino inmates, who are more susceptible to the disease. The letter also expressed concern that transferring large numbers of black and Asian-American inmates away from Avenal and Pleasant Valley would lead to "increased racial tensions and gang-related discord" at both the receiving and sending prisons by boosting racial segregation.

"We never received a response," Baker said.

Asked about the letter, a department official said the state is still composing its answer.

"We received the letter and are working on a response, which should be ready within 30 days," said Jeffrey Callison, press secretary for the CDCR.

He added that the department doesn't quibble with the findings of a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health study that concluded prisoners at Avenal and Pleasant Valley are infected with valley fever at much higher rates than the general population.

The state commissioned the study because it was trying to find ways to reduce the rate of infection at the prisons, Callison said.

"We've already been implementing some of the recommendations and others will be looked at in the future," he said.

For now, the prison is taking precautionary measures such as improving ventilation, putting in door sweeps to block outside dust and avoiding any unnecessary disturbing of dirt, Callison said.

Valley fever is a disease caused by fungal spores that grow in soil in hot, dry areas such as California's Central Valley. Some people never know they have it, while others come down with flu-like symptoms. Severe cases that spread all over the body can be fatal. Survivors require expensive, lifelong anti-fungal medication.

In April, the federal receiver who oversees medical care in state prisons ordered the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to exclude black, Filipino and other vulnerable inmates from the two valley prisons.

Blacks and Filipinos are more susceptible to the fungal infection, along with people with depressed immune systems such as those who are HIV-positive or undergoing chemotherapy.

Rates of valley fever among prisoners at Avenal and Pleasant Valley have been substantially higher than among the rest of Californians: more than 1,000 times higher at Pleasant Valley and 189 times higher at Avenal.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health report said valley fever had killed three employees at the two prisons in recent years and sickened 103 others.

Baker said the union is still poring through the report and could not yet comment on it.

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