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California spends $5M to screen inmates for valley fever to decide who can go to 2 prisons

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SACRAMENTO, California — California is spending more than $5 million to screen tens of thousands of prison inmates for a potentially deadly illness to see which ones can safely be housed at two prisons in the Central Valley.

Inmates who already have been exposed to the soil-borne fungus that causes valley fever are considered largely immune to repeat infections, so they can be transferred to the prisons near Fresno.

The testing, which officials hope to complete in one day Monday, follows the recommendations of federal experts who said last year that the tests could reduce the number of infections by 60 percent, compared with the current policy of automatically excluding black and Filipino inmates and others who statistically are more susceptible to the fungus.

The fungus grows naturally in the soil in the Central Valley and other dry locations such as Arizona and Mexico. Valley fever often produces no symptoms, but causes mild to severe flu-like symptoms or more serious infections in about 40 percent of cases. It can spread to the brain, bones, skin and eyes, leading to blindness, skin abscesses, lung failure and death.

The commercially available $60 skin test was approved in July by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Inmates will be injected with a noninfectious strain of the fungus and evaluated two days later. The $5.4 million includes the cost of the test for about 90,000 of the more than 134,000 state inmates, said Joyce Hayhoe, a spokeswoman for the federal court-appointed receiver who controls prison medical care.

PHOTO: FILE - This undated photo released by the Avenal State Prison public information office shows an aerial view of Avenal State Prison in Avenal, Calif.  On Monday, Jan. 12, 2015, California will begin screening thousands of prison inmates, at the cost of $5 million, for a potentially deadly illness to see which ones can safely be housed at Avenal and Pleasant Valley state prisons, both in the Central Valley. (AP Photo/Avenal State Prison Public Information Office)
FILE - This undated photo released by the Avenal State Prison public information office shows an aerial view of Avenal State Prison in Avenal, Calif. On Monday, Jan. 12, 2015, California will begin screening thousands of prison inmates, at the cost of $5 million, for a potentially deadly illness to see which ones can safely be housed at Avenal and Pleasant Valley state prisons, both in the Central Valley. (AP Photo/Avenal State Prison Public Information Office)

The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation expects to administer all the skin tests on Monday, much as it does a similar annual test for exposure to tuberculosis. Women and inmates on death row won't be tested because they can't be housed in the two prisons, while male inmates with weakened immune systems or cardiopulmonary disease also will not be tested.

Don Specter, director of the nonprofit Berkeley, California-based Prison Law Office, said the testing is "way overdue."

His firm persuaded a federal judge to order the state to move nearly 2,600 susceptible inmates out of Avenal and Pleasant Valley state prisons in 2013 because of deaths and illnesses caused by valley fever. The two prisons combined to produce 83 percent of valley fever cases in the prison system during an outbreak in 2011.

Experts from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention projected that about 13 percent of the tested inmates will be found to be immune, or about 11,700 inmates. The capacity of the two prisons is about 8,200 inmates.

Inmates can refuse to be tested, but they then are considered eligible for transfer to the two prisons unless they are in high-risk groups.

Inmates have been given educational material in English and Spanish, and shown videos explaining the testing.

There were 197 inmate cases of valley fever in 2013, including four that contributed to inmates' deaths. There were 21 cases through June 2014, the most recent period available, but no reported deaths. The state has been spending more than $23 million annually to care for infected inmates and employees.

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