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California agrees to move inmates at risk of Valley Fever

By Laila Kearney

(Reuters) - Thousands of California prison inmates at risk of contracting Valley Fever, a sometimes deadly fungal disease, will be transferred out of areas of the state where the spores that cause the illness are prevalent, officials said on Tuesday.

The state initially resisted the idea of moving the inmates, saying it would be "hugely disruptive" and interfere with efforts to reduce crowding in California's already over-subscribed correctional facilities.

But a week after a federal court formally ordered the inmates to be moved, Governor Jerry Brown's administration said on Tuesday it would comply.

The back-and-forth is part of a lengthy tussle between the governor of the country's most populous state and a panel of three federal judges.

The judges in 2009 ordered California to reduce inmates in its 33-prison system to relieve overcrowding that the jurists say has led to inadequate medical and mental healthcare.

The issue has become highly political for Brown, partly because reducing the population in state prisons has forced local jurisdictions to host some convicts in county jails who previously would have been sent to state prisons.

The latest order calls for moving about 2,600 inmates who are considered highly vulnerable to the disease because of age, ethnicity and health conditions including diabetes and autoimmune disorders.

The inmates will be moved from prisons in the state's San Joaquin Valley, where the spore that causes the illness is endemic, and replaced by inmates with a low risk for the disease.

But the process may take longer than the 90 days the court has required, corrections department spokesman Jeffrey Callison said in a statement.

"Despite the challenges, the state will make every effort to fully comply with the federal order within 90 days, but may request an extension of time to comply with the order if it appears the process may take longer," Callison said.

The judgment came nearly two months after a court-appointed federal overseer recommended that the vulnerable inmates be moved to other regions.

Valley Fever is rarely fatal in otherwise healthy people. But it has killed 52 California inmates since 2006, said Warren George, an attorney with the Prison Law Office, a nonprofit law firm representing the at-risk inmates.

Symptoms include a cough, fever, chest pains and muscle aches that can last for months.

About 150,000 Valley Fever infections occur in the U.S. Southwest each year, most of them in Arizona, said Dr. John Galgiani, director of the University of Arizona Valley Fever Center for Excellence.

(Editing by Sharon Bernstein and Peter Cooney)

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