The haze of jet lag hasn't completely lifted for Assemblyman Rudy Salas, fresh off a tour of India, but the reality of his biggest legislative quest is once again crystal clear.
Efforts to combat valley fever, whose impact has devastated thousands in Kern County and well beyond, remains underfunded and, many might say, little understood.
"It's a big deal and not just in my area," Salas said Friday, over a midday platter of welcome-home chorizo and eggs. "I have to continue making that case. Two-thirds of the state is affected. It's more than just the valley. We've got to do something."
To that end he is tentatively laying out a strategy to bring his valley fever bill, vetoed this month by Gov. Jerry Brown, back before the legislature.
"I've been talking to the administration," said the Bakersfield-based Democratic assemblyman. "Maybe I'll go have coffee with the governor. And I'm working with the (Democratic legislative) leadership now" to craft a second bill.
Salas' AB 1279 initially appropriated $2 million in funding for valley fever awareness and, perhaps more important, addressed deficiencies in disease reporting guidelines.
On its way to a floor vote, however, all of the funding was stripped away and the bill that legislators approved unanimously was a toothless shadow of its former self. Reduced to a symbolic gesture, the bill was unceremoniously killed by the governor.
In his veto message, Brown cited existing valley fever public awareness outreach by the California Department of Public Health and the need for additional resources to be allocated during the budget process for the expansion of CDPH’s work.
"(Salas) needs to see what the state Department of Public Health wants to do now and then work with them," said Sandra Larson, retired executive director of the Valley Fever Americas Foundation. "Work with Public Health on outreach and then get money for research. That's what we need to do.
"So many people need a cure right now," she said. "There's a potential cure sitting on the shelf (Nikkomycin Z) that's just waiting to be tested. It's so frustrating."
Salas could go after state valley fever funding a couple of ways.
"We're looking at the possibility of trying to do it administratively (through the budget process) but, for us, we would like to have the rule of law behind it" with a bill passed by the legislature, Salas said.
Salas acknowledges Brown's veto may have served a useful purpose. "Because it didn't pass (the governor's desk), hopefully now we can rally all the advocates and get something better than what we ended up voting on."
Salas said the key will be bringing Brown's office into the discussion during the bill formulation process.
"'You didn't like the language of the first bill? What language would you like?' That's the approach we take with (the threat of) the governor's veto. The more they're invested in it, the more likely they are to sign it," he said.
In drafting a second, 2017-18 version of the bill, does Salas put the emphasis on outreach or research? Both are vital, and both need funding.
"We asked for $2 million this time," Salas said, "but we could use $4 million, $6 million."
Larson said Salas should continue his bipartisan approach.
"He had two Democrats and two Republicans as co-sponsors (of AB 1279), which I thought was a cool move," she said. "I hope he does that again. It's not a partisan issue."
Despite the setback, Salas remains in contact with UC Merced researchers trying to conquer the illness. They have discussed using research money from the University of California to attack the problem. At this point, Salas will listen to all options.
Valley fever, the common name for Coccidioidomycosis, is caused by a fungus that grows in loamy desert climates throughout the southwestern United States. When that fungus gets disturbed in the soil, often through agricultural tilling and construction, fungal spores can get swept into the wind and inhaled.
Most who inhale the spores don’t get sick, but others develop flu-like symptoms, including fever, cough and extreme fatigue that can last months. In rare cases, it can cause death.
The disease is endemic to Kern County and much of Arizona. In California alone, it infected 5,372 last year, making it the worst year for the disease since cases were made reportable in 1995. Arizona reported 6,101 cases in 2016.
— Reporter Harold Pierce contributed to this story.