Kern County Public Health Department and the Kern Medical Valley Fever Institute held a press conference Tuesday to announce the latest Valley Fever data and launch their new Valley Fever dashboard.
“Valley Fever (Coccidioidomycosis) is a disease that grows in soil and dirt. Valley Fever is endemic in Kern County meaning the disease is found naturally in the soil in many parts of Kern County,” said Brynn Carrigan, Director of Kern County Public Health. “Unfortunately, since 2016 Kern’s Valley Fever cases continue to remain much higher than what we were seeing in previous years.”
According to the Valley Fever dashboard in 2019, there were 3,481 cases, in 2020 there were 2,954, and in 2021 there were 3,045 cases reported.
Paul Rzucidlo, Epidemiologist with Kern County Public Health, stated that the decrease from 2019 could be for a variety of reasons including the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The COVID pandemic has affected the way people access healthcare, this could have resulted in missed or delayed Valley Fever diagnosis,” said Rzucidlo. “Additionally some of the precautions people may have taken to prevent COVID such as respiratory usage could reduce risk of Valley Fever.”
According to Rzucidlo, there were 40 deaths in 2020 and 33 in 2021 which is an increase from 21 deaths in 2019. Rzucidlo continued to say that the death rates are typically inconsistent so this does indicate that there will be an overall rise. He continued to say that death from Valley Fever does not always happen at the time of infection and people can live years before dying from Valley Fever.
A person with COVID-19 can be more susceptible to Valley Fever and Rzucidlo said that may have caused the increase in deaths for 2020 and 2021.
Valley Fever is contracted by breathing in the dust that contains the spores of the fungus and the spores are not visible to the naked eye.
Dr. Royce Johnson, Medical Director of Valley Fever Institute, explained that if someone has a respiratory infection for more than two weeks it is advised to get tested for Valley Fever. He added that while not all infections that last more than two weeks are Valley Fever it is likely.
If you’re diagnosed with community-acquired Pneumonia and don’t get better with that first round of antibiotics the answer is probably not to get a second antibiotic but to get tested for Valley Fever,” said Johnson.
It is advised to get tested because Johnson said that many cases go without being diagnosed.
“Once you breathe it in it goes to your lungs and sets up housekeeping and in 60 percent of the patients that’s the end of the story,” said Johnson. “ Of the 40 percent that gets sick, 30 percent don’t get diagnosed. They have a respiratory illness and they get over it, it was called the flu… 10 percent get diagnosed and we’re interested in increasing that number.”
Of the 10 percent that gets diagnosed most get better in about 1% of the patients the fungus will spread to other parts of the body. According to Johnson about half of those will spread to the brain and the other half to the bones. There are therapies and medications that are used to help with these cases.
Rob Purdie, Patient and Program Development Coordinator with Valley Fever institute, spoke about his journey with having Cocci Meningitis and working with the institute.
According to Purdie, Cocci Meningitis is the most severe form of Valley Fever. He was diagnosed in 2012 and was hospitalized for five weeks then discharged and placed on fluconazole and then was placed back in the hospital that October and failed two different medications after being on them for six months each. So the doctors added another drug and did combination therapy.
“In order to do that the first thing they had to do was drill a hole in my skull. So they had a surgeon come in and insert it under my skull where you see this scar here,” Purdie explained while pointing to a scar on the top of his head. “It’s called an ommaya reservoir and it’s a way to administer amphotericin which is one of the drugs directly into my central nervous system and brain to treat the Valley Fever.”
This was the first treatment to successfully maintain his Valley Fever before he failed those drugs as well two years later.
“The oral medication that I was on causes photosensitivity. I ended up with Squamous cell carcinoma so I had to be transferred off of that drug. The amphotericin causes severe side effects, they couldn’t take me off the drug but they had to expand the frequency of treatments,” said Purdie.
He explained that he went from having treatment twice a week to a week or two weeks and he is now getting treatment every 16 weeks. He has been able to stay on the same combination of drugs for the last five years and because of his type of Valley Fever, he will have to be on medication for the rest of his life.
Purdie said that the institute is very important to have here because without his treatments he would not be able to work or take care of his children.
In 2019 he was hired at the institute to work on advocacy and awareness of Valley Fever in the public. One thing he does is education for outdoor workers about Valley Fever.
“We have a program where we will provide education to any outdoor workers through their employer at no cost to the employer or the worker. It’s funded through a grant from the Department of Labor,” said Purdie.
A main takeaway from each speaker is that education and awareness are very important with Valley Fever. People can live in the Central Valley all of their lives and still get it and someone can pass through for a day and still contract it.
“If one lives long enough in the Central Valley you’re going to become acquainted with people who’ve had it. People who it’s had a large impact on their life, everything from those who have had to stop working and unfortunately sometimes even cases of death,” said Scott Thygerson, Chief Executive Officer of Kern Medical.