A judge has ordered a week-long suspension of federal criminal proceedings involving inmates in Fresno because of a growing flu outbreak at the Fresno County Jail.
U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. O'Neill issued the order late Tuesday afternoon, saying he was doing so "in order to assure the health and safety" of judges, court staff, attorneys and the public.
O'Neill's order noted that one county jail inmate has died of flu complications and another who appeared in federal court last week has now been diagnosed with H1N1 influenza. The Fresno County Sheriff's Office said it has quarantined hundreds of inmates to try to prevent influenza A from spreading.
On Monday, sheriff's spokesman Chris Curtice said three inmates have been diagnosed with H1N1 influenza, and nine others showed flu-like symptoms and are in an isolation ward. In the central San Joaquin Valley, at least 10 patients have died of the flu this season -- four of them in Fresno County.
The jail currently houses about 135 federal inmates, said Sheriff Margaret Mims, who praised the judge's order. The jail had more than 2,900 inmates total as of Tuesday night.
"I feel this is a wise decision and precaution to take," she said in an email. "We will continue to communicate with the courts to make the best informed decisions we can on how to coordinate our efforts to prevent the spread of this disease."
Fresno defense attorney Anthony Capozzi said he was surprised to hear about the judge's order, which he called a first in his 41 years in the central San Joaquin Valley. But he said it was the wise thing to do.
"It is the right thing to do to protect everyone's health," he said.
Still, Capozzi said the court order is unlikely to have a big impact on federal criminal cases in Fresno because inmates will still be brought up from a jail in Kern County.
It could, though, delay inmate sentencings, which are typically done on Mondays, Capozzi said.
The order says no federal inmate housed at the county jail is to be brought to the federal courthouse in downtown Fresno for seven calendar days from Tuesday's decision.
"By that time, this court will have additional medical information to make further decisions on this subject matter that will lead either to the extension of this order, or the expiration of it," the order said.
O'Neill's order said the judge consulted with the jail's in-charge physician, jail officials and Fresno County Superior Court Presiding Judge Jonathan B. Conklin before issuing his order.
In Fresno County Superior Court, the presiding judge issued an order Thursday prohibiting the transportation to court of inmates who are under quarantine.
Conklin said Tuesday night the order does not affect inmates who are not on lock down. But he also suggested that could change.
"We are evaluating the situation on a day-to-day basis and we will issue orders accordingly," Conklin said.
On Tuesday, the Fresno County Coroner's Office identified the jail inmate who died Monday of H1N1 influenza A as Francisco Rosales Gamboa, 60, of Fresno. The Fresno County Sheriff's Office previously reported his age as 61.
Rosales Gamboa was admitted to Community Regional Medical Center last week and died Monday afternoon at the hospital. He had been in county jail for intoxicated driving and a federal immigration hold since Sept. 6, according to jail records.
The jail is providing flu shots to inmates who request the vaccine and who are not showing symptoms of the illness, said Curtice, the sheriff's spokesman.
Meanwhile, Fresno County health officials said two more people died of complications from the flu on Tuesday.
The two are the latest H1N1 flu-related deaths in the central San Joaquin Valley. Fresno County now has four deaths, while Kings and Merced counties have three each.
Flu deaths are occurring earlier this winter than in past years, said David Luchini, assistant director of the Fresno County Department of Public Health.
The Tuesday deaths in Fresno were a man and woman, both in their 50s, Luchini said. Younger and middle-aged adults have been the hardest hit by the H1N1 virus, sometimes called "swine flu."
The flu vaccine includes protection from the H1N1 strain, Luchini said. "We still need to get as many people vaccinated in the community as possible."