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Inmate Dies in Meningitis Outbreak at Jail

February 22, 1993

SANTA CLARITA, Calif. (AP) _ Officials inoculated county jail inmates and deputies with antibiotics as a bacterial meningitis outbreak killed one man.

Los Angeles County officials refused to say Sunday why two days passed between the death of inmate Alexander Betancourt on Thursday and the time antibiotics were first administered at the Peter J. Pitchess Honor Rancho.

Two unidentified inmates remained hospitalized in critical condition Sunday after contracting the disease. About 2,000 of the 9,200 inmates and 200 deputies were thought to have been exposed, said Deputy Ron Weber.

The type of bacterial meningitis at the jail is an acute infectious disease that inflames the brain and the spinal cord. It is spread through direct contact, such as coughing, and most often occurs in crowded living conditions such as barracks or day care centers.

Shirley Fannin, who directs disease control programs for the county Department of Health Services, said that only those closest to the infected are at risk of contracting the disease.

Fannin said the disease strikes seven to 10 county jail inmates a year.

Betancourt, 45, had been housed in three jails since Jan. 26. It was not known when or how he contracted the disease or how long he was contagious.

On Sunday, visitors were turned away from the jail and inmate movement was restricted.

Relatives of inmates said officials hadn’t said whether they were in danger during visits. Betancourt’s wife, Ramona Portillo, 34, said she received mixed messages.

″They told me that he had a heart attack, that it wasn’t meningitis,″ she said. ″But then someone told me that he had a very contagious disease and we all should get checked out.″