Jail Outbreak of H1N1 Throws Court for a Loop

     FRESNO, Calif. (CN) - A growing outbreak of the H1N1 flu virus led a federal judge to order a one-week suspension of criminal proceedings for Fresno County Jail inmates.
     U.S. District Judge Lawrence O'Neill issued the emergency order Tuesday, one day after the death of an inmate from H1N1 and the spread of the virus to another inmate who had appeared in the court last week.
     That inmate has been quarantined, O'Neill noted, adding that he has consulted with the jail doctors and other personnel.
     His order mandates that, for at least the next week, no federal inmates housed at the Fresno jail will be allowed to enter the federal courthouse. All scheduled proceedings involving those inmates have been continued for the time being, O'Neill said.
     "Of particular significance is the medical information that a person who has the virus is contagious for 24 hours before they are symptomatic, and precluding exposure of the inmate population to others outside of the jail is the very safest thing to do from a proactive and preventative standpoint," his two-page order states.
     The decision - made by the court's own motion - would "assure the health and safety of the federal judiciary, the court staff, members of pretrial services, members of the Federal Probation Department, United States Marshals, members of the United States Attorney's Office, members of the Federal Defender's Office, private counsel and members of the public who have business with, or visit the courtrooms," O'Neill added.
     O'Neill's order stands for at least seven days - the incubation period of the H1N1 virus. By then, the judge said he expects to have additional medical information to either extend the ban or end it.
     "Until such order is issued, and inmates are transported for the hearing on their respective cases, time is excluded, including but not limited to the Speedy Trial Act," O'Neill added.
     Fresno County Sheriff's spokesman Chris Curtice told the Fresno Bee on Monday that three inmates have been diagnosed with the virus so far, and nine others who are exhibiting symptoms have been placed in an isolation ward. The jail houses 135 federal inmates and more than 2,900 inmates total.
     The jail is giving flu shots to inmates who request the vaccine, Curtice said.
     O'Neill's order joins one issued last week by Fresno County Superior Court Presiding Judge Jonathan Conklin, which prohibits transporting of quarantined inmates to the state court.
     "We are evaluating the situation on a day-to-day basis and we will issue orders accordingly," Conklin told the Bee.
     In the central San Joaquin Valley, at least 10 people have died of the flu so far this season. Four of the deaths involve Fresno County residents, while Kings and Merced counties have reported three deaths each.