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Valley Fever
Military’s early valley fever research still benefiting public health today

In Lemoore, almost everyone has a story about valley fever.

Take Frank Bernhardt, nursing a beer at the Fleet Reserve bar on the edge of town. He first encountered the disease just after moving here in the 1960s. “Years ago, my youngest daughter had it. She just didn't have no energy,” he said.

“I had a sailor that worked for me that had it,” recalls Kevin Crownover, playing dice across the bar. “He probably missed about a week's worth of work.”

Bernhardt and Crownover share something else in common: They both served at Naval Air Station Lemoore, the Navy’s largest jet base in the country.

Looking out at the airstrips cutting through dusty fields of cotton and corn, it’s no surprise that the Naval base, about 100 miles from the ocean, struggles with this desert disease, caused when people breath in spores from a fungus that lives in parched soil. Kings County ranks consistently among California’s three worst counties for valley fever. From at least 2000 to 2013, Lemoore had the highest number of cases of any military base in the country.

But the air station’s history with valley fever begins much earlier, in the mid-20th century, when military researchers teamed up with a prominent epidemiologist to study disease exposure and patterns of infection. This collaboration resulted in a wealth of data revealing trends that earlier studies had only hinted at—and a legacy of research that still informs how we treat and diagnose the disease today.

“It was very important to us,” said Dr. Demosthenes Pappagianis, associate director of UC Davis’s Coccidioidomycosis Serology Laboratory, which provides testing services related to the disease. “The expansion of knowledge of the disease was very importantly supported by military contributions.”

Valley fever and military readiness

As the armed forces broadened their presence in the San Joaquin Valley at the start of World War II, military leaders became concerned about valley fever, at that time still a largely mysterious disease. They brought in Dr. Charles Smith, a Stanford physician who had pioneered valley fever research, to help determine the risk of exposure to the disease and its threats to military readiness.

Smith’s collaboration with the military ended after the war, as bases in the Valley closed or changed hands. But his findings from that time period still shape our basic understanding of the disease.

Smith had developed the first skin test, which could determine exposure and immunity to the disease—a precursor to the test available in some health centers today, called Spherusol. The military agreed to fund an extensive project with Smith at four bases in the Valley, including Lemoore, which at that time belonged to the Army. Beginning in 1941, Smith gave skin tests to every service member when they arrived and periodically throughout their service.

This pool of thousands of research subjects allowed Smith to confirm with greater certainty what he had uncovered in earlier, smaller studies in Tulare and Kern counties. First, the infection rates were high. At one prisoner of war camp in Kern County, Smith found that as many as 10 percent of the prisoners were hospitalized with the disease. Second, he found that blacks and Filipinos are particularly vulnerable. Third, the majority of people with the fungal spores in their system never actually develop symptoms of valley fever and that it is possible to build up immunity over time.

“When the war came along,” said Pappagianis, who worked alongside Smith in the 1950s and 1960s, “the movement of people into the state including the military personnel certainly gave a bigger number of cases that could be analyzed as to various aspects about the incidence and about the varieties of infections that are represented by valley fever.”

By linking infection rates to the geographic origins of service members and prisoners of war, Smith also created the most accurate maps of areas where the fungus causing valley fever is found—the same ones we relied upon until recently when the spores that cause valley fever began being detected in regions beyond the desert southwest.

It was also during the war, said Pappagianis, that Smith and his military colleagues determined that valley fever cases spiked when a drought was followed by heavy rains.

“The military has been crucial in all of this,” said Sandra Larson, former director of the nonprofit Valley Fever Americas and unofficial valley fever historian. “Their interests brought it to national attention, and that's something that we're still working on today.”

Military research in post-war America

Since then, the military’s involvement in valley fever research has waxed and waned. It peaked with work on vaccine development in the 1980s, which ultimately stalled. Earlier this year, the Navy was awarded a small grant for a blood serum study to understand rates of exposure to the disease.

The military made some of the earliest discoveries in how to control the dust that carries the spores into people’s lungs. Military research demonstrated that landscaping, pavement and dust stabilizers can reduce exposure to the disease. Since World War II, valley fever incidence throughout the military has dropped by an order of magnitude, from over 10 cases per 100,000 service members to less than three.

Much of that improvement stems from dust control, said Dr. John Galgiani, executive director of the Valley Fever Center for Excellence. In addition to the steps, the military itself took, Galgiani credited the gradual shift from wide open, rural spaces to more paved over and built up urban areas. The math is simple: less dirt means less dust. “Urbanization has had a big effect on the reduction in annual case rates,” he said.

Lemoore today

Over a 14-year period from 2000 to 2013, Naval Air Station Lemoore reported 62 cases of the disease. It’s not an enormous number, but it’s still the highest reported by any U.S. military installation during that time period. “Lemoore is really the military’s epicenter of valley fever,” said Dr. Ryan Maves, an infectious disease expert at Naval Medical Center San Diego.

The Navy has not made base-specific data available since 2013, but a doctor at Lemoore claims their case rate today is similar to that seen in surrounding Kings County—meaning they could see anywhere from a small handful to a few dozen cases per year.

Military officials don’t seem alarmed by those numbers. “There’s only so much dust reduction one can do on a base with supersonic jets taking off from it,” said Maves.

That’s why at Lemoore, the focus is instead on education and outreach. Every health care provider on base is required to take coursework in recognizing and treating valley fever. This is not standard among health systems outside of the military but public health experts say it is a model worth emulating with the potential to significantly reduce the disease’s toll. In addition, all sailors have to sit through a mandatory lecture on the disease.

“There's no instruction saying that we have to do this,” said Dr. Francis Hall, director of public health on the base. “We just think it's in the best interest of our population, given the fact that the bulk of them are not from this area.”

Other institutions do take pointed preventive measures. For instance, the California state prison system has seen huge drops in valley fever cases since it began relocating inmates out of the Valley based on their ethnicity and skin test results.

Hall said measures like that just aren’t practical in the Navy. On the other hand, he said, the Navy can take pre-existing health conditions into account when choosing where to station sailors. And at Lemoore specifically, some protective measures are built into the job. “Much of the work done at this base is around aircraft because this is the F-18 base,” he said, “and when people work around the aircraft they typically wear respirators.”

Sailors also receive regular medical care and do most of their exercising indoors, largely out of the reach of dust.

Sandra Larson appreciates how important the military was to early disease research, but she wishes its role today was greater. “Maybe until the surgeon general himself gets the disease there won't be that much interest,” she said, “but I'm hoping that eventually, the military could be interested in helping to fund the cure.”

Victim's family to fight convicted killer's release

Every day, 82-year-old Lawrence Harrison would show up at the McDonald's drive-thru to buy a hamburger and Coke that he'd share with his dog, E.T. Then they'd sit in the parking lot together, the dog drinking soda from a bowl while his master ate and hand fed him half the hamburger.

E.T. was Harrison’s trusted companion, and it was E.T. who survived with a bloody eye and broken ribs while his master was stabbed 63 times and left for dead on the living room floor of his southwest Hanford home in 1992.

The brutality and senselessness of the crime shocked the community.

Cynthia Craddock Biletnikoff had just turned 26 when this happened to her great-grandfather, and still reels from the memories of the crime. She said her great-grandfather was a kind, loving human being who would never hurt anybody.

“Everyone that knew him, loved him,” Biletnikoff said. “I’ve never heard an unkind word about him.”

Phillip Clark Watts was found guilty and sentenced to 25 years to life back in 1993. In 2011, Watts was considered for parole release from California State Prison, Solano in Vacaville, and Harrison’s family rallied with petition signatures and letters to keep him in prison.

His parole was denied in 2011, but on Dec. 21, Watts will once again be considered for release during a parole hearing; and Biletnikoff is leading the charge in making sure he never gets out.

She’s once again gathering letters and has started an online petition that has garnered thousands of signatures on Harrison’s behalf, as well as support from several victims’ advocate organizations.

Harrison was well loved by locals, Biletnikoff said. A retired heavy-duty diesel mechanic, he grew up in Texas and loved to fish and hunt. His friends called him "Hoss," and he was known as a fix-it man.

Biletnikoff remembers fondly wondering how her great-grandfathers pants never fell down, because they always seemed full to the brim with change that would reach into and give her a handful of every time he saw her.

Police had said they believed Harrison and Watts knew each other casually before the murder. They'd met while Watts was visiting relatives in the Ogden Street neighborhood Harrison called home.

Then one night Harrison was out watering his garden when the suspect snuck through the open front door into his home. Harrison's dog may have barked, or maybe he heard a noise that alerted him to something going on inside his home.

Investigators later found the hose still running in the backyard, flooding the grass with water.

Harrison was struck several times in the face and knocked to the floor. The suspect demanded money. Harrison apparently gave him a Bible he kept some spare cash in.

Investigators speculated that maybe he insulted the suspect when he handed it over. The book was found discarded next to his body.

The events that followed spilled several pints of blood on the floor. Snubbed-out cigarettes were found nearby, suggesting the killer took his time. Biletnikoff said they fought for around three hours before Harrison succumbed to the last three stab wounds.

The killer got away with $1,800 in government checks and cash.

Neighbors noticed the garage and front door standing open and called police around 3 a.m.

The discovery sparked a three-month search that ended with Watts' arrest.

But his arrest and subsequent conviction one year later was not enough for the victim's grieving family.

Harrison's wounds had been so severe that his own relatives barely recognized him, forcing them to give him a closed-casket funeral. Biletnikoff said she heard the murder was one of the most heinous and brutal in Kings County history.

Watts and his family have repeatedly denied his involvement in the murder. When he was sentenced in 1993, family members told The Sentinel that the wrong man had been convicted.

During the 2011 parole hearing, Hanford Police Chief Parker Sever (he was a captain back then) personally wrote a letter to the parole board requesting they deny the release. Sever could not be reached for comment Friday, but Biletnikoff said he has written another letter for the upcoming hearing.

Biletnikoff said The Kings County District Attorney's Office will also send a representative to the hearing to speak out against Watts.

Biletnikoff said she was obviously relieved when Watt’s parole was denied the first time, but said she knew in the back of her mind that the day would come when she would have to face the man convicted of her great-grandfather’s murder once again.

She called the first experience “horrific” and remembers being terrified and in shock the entire time. She said the entire ordeal brought back a form of post-traumatic stress disorder after reliving the events.

As much as Harrison’s family want justice for him, Biletnikoff said she also wants to keep society safe by not having Watts walking around free.

“There are no winners or losers in this,” Biletnikoff said. “Nothing will ever really change or bring my grandfather back.”

Large-scale probation operation nets four arrests

HANFORD — Four individuals were arrested Friday during a large-scale probation search operation in Hanford, police said.

Officials said officers with the Hanford Police Department, Kings County Probation Department, Kings County Gang Task Force and Kings County District Attorney’s Office conducted the probation searches all across Hanford.

Authorities said the operation was in part due to the increase in theft-related crimes, vehicle thefts and residential burglaries occurring during the holiday season.

During the probation sweep, officers said they conducted searches at nearly 30 locations searching dozens of subjects who are on active Kings County probation.

The probation searches led to these four arrests:

  • Robert Leon Taylor, 36, was charged on suspicion of probation violation, possession of a controlled substance for sale, felon in possession of firearm, possession of a controlled substance while armed, possession of ammo by felon and possession of brass knuckles.
  • Reginald Edwards Gray, 27, was charged on suspicion of flash hold.
  • Shayna Loker, 31, was charged on suspicion of misdemeanor warrant.
  • Rebecca Sexton, 22, was charged on suspicion of possession of a controlled substance.

Hanford Council to discuss commercial cannabis permit fees

HANFORD — Cannabis will once again be the primary focus Tuesday night when the Hanford City Council meets during its regular open session.

First, during a public hearing, Council will discuss establishing annual permit fees for commercial medical cannabis business permits.

After Council awarded 21 cannabis permits to three companies at the Nov. 21 meeting, staff prepared a proposed budget for the remainder of the fiscal year to support future operations and ensure full cost recovery.

Staff will also be asking Council to change a position in the planning division so the city can recruit an applicant to the high level management position that will be involved in the cannabis operation.

Under general business, Council will discuss allowing the two companies that were not recommended for cannabis permits at the Nov. 7 meeting to repeat the second and third phases of the application process.

This discussion will take place because Councilman Justin Mendes suggested giving the companies that weren’t recommended a second chance.

At the end of the night, Council will also undergo its annual reorganization, where a new mayor and vice mayor will be chosen for next year.