SAN FRANCISCO -- A federal judge on Monday is scheduled to consider whether an airborne fungus that occurs naturally in the San Joaquin Valley presents enough of a public health danger that thousands of vulnerable state prison inmates should be moved to other locations.
Nearly three-dozen inmate deaths and hundreds of hospitalizations have been blamed on the fungus that causes an illness known as valley fever.
The federal court-appointed official who controls prison medical care, J. Clark Kelso, has said the problem is so severe that inmates who are particularly susceptible to the disease should be moved out of Avenal and Pleasant Valley state prisons.
A doctor hired by lawyers representing inmates' welfare went even further, saying in a sworn declaration in April that both prisons should be shut down.
Medical studies have found that black, Filipino and medically at-risk inmates are more vulnerable to health problems from valley fever, which is a fungal infection that originates in the region's soil. Kelso said those groups should be barred from the two prisons, which would mean transferring about 3,250 of the 8,100 inmates there.
But Gov. Jerry Brown's administration says that goes too far.
The administration has told U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson of San Francisco in legal filings that he should wait while the issue is studied by the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the affiliated National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.
Moreover, the administration argues 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.
The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation 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 Centers for Disease Control 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.
Further delay "shows a callous disregard for patient health and safety,'' the experts told Henderson in their report. The state's position "raises a concern that it lacks the will, capacity, and leadership to maintain a system of providing constitutionally adequate medical health care.''