Michigan fungus outbreak: Paper mill closed for 3 weeks as blastomycosis leaves contractor dead and over 90 ill
ESCANABA, MICHIGAN: The Escanaba Billerud Paper Mill was closed for three weeks after a deadly fungal infection left one person dead and more than 90 sick. The unnamed deceased individual reportedly worked as a contractor at the mill and died from blastomycosis, the Daily Mail reported. Officials said they were “deeply saddened” over the death and offered their “heartfelt sympathies” to the affected family.
On Thursday, April 13, 2023, Billerud, the Swedish company that runs the mill, announced that the plant would remain closed for deep cleaning as a “precautionary measure”. Workers at the plant told the outlet that infections continued to soar as the mill remained open nearly a month after the outbreak began. The Public Health Delta & Menominee Counties said that 21 cases of the fungal infection were confirmed, while 76 additional cases are being considered as “probable,” as per CBS News. The infection also led to at least 12 hospitalizations. The source of the infection linked to the paper mill is yet to be identified.
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“We were saddened to hear this news. Our heartfelt sympathies and prayers go out to the family, friends and co-workers who have lost their loved one,” Michael Snyder, a local health department officer, said in the wake of the contractor’s death. “Everyone at Billerud is deeply saddened by this news. Anyone who works at our facility is part of our team and we are keeping this individual, their family, coworkers and friends in our thoughts and close to our hearts,” Brian Peterson, vice president for Billerud Operations at the mill, added.
When did the fungal infection outbreak begin?
Blastomycosis, the fungal infection at the center of the Michigan paper mill, was first diagnosed at the plant in late February, nearly a month before Billerud ordered the closure, as per the Daily Mail. The company said it was notified about the outbreak in early March after the workers first tested positive for the infection. The firm then told the plant staff to wear face masks for avoiding infection, the outlet reported. The testing labs reportedly spotted the fungus in samples collected from individuals showing symptoms in the 21 confirmed cases. Meanwhile, the 76 “probable” cases were detected in people who showed symptoms and tested positive in an antibody or antigen test.
So far, all cases and hospitalizations have been noticed among people who are employees, contractors, or visitors of the mill, the publication stated. No cases in the wider community have been reported at the time. If the majority of probable cases test positive for the fungus, this will be considered the largest blastomycosis outbreak in the US. A 2010 Wisconsin outbreak with 55 cases, 30 hospitalizations, and two deaths is considered to be the largest to date.
‘Their lungs are filling up with nodules’
Jamie Dier, the vice president of the United Steelworkers Union, told the publication that people who fell seriously ill were “not able to breathe” and “coughing up blood or mucus.” “Their lungs are filling up with nodules [of the fungus]. There is like fungal masses on their lungs that are preventing them from breathing,” he said. Dier himself had to battle the fungus after a six-week infection left him short of breath with fungal nodules in his lungs. He has since recovered.
Gerald Kell, who leads the United Steelworkers union representing employees at the Escanaba Billerud Paper Mill, shared that some workers required weeks of hospital care. The outlet also noted that mill leaders started working with health services including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the local Department of Health to manage the fungus outbreak.
‘We take this matter very seriously’
On Thursday, April 13, Billerud CEO and President Christoph Michalski announced the closure of the Escanaba Billerud Paper Mill for three weeks. “As a precautionary measure we will temporarily idle the Escanaba mill for up to three weeks to facilitate additional proper cleaning based on recommendations from [health authorities],” he said. “This requires larger portions of the mill to be vacant while this work is performed,” Michalski added. “Although the source of the infection has not been established and we have not received any information from the mill's [investigators] that visiting or working in the mill is unsafe, we take this matter very seriously,” he noted.
The company is reportedly planning to deep clean the ventilation system at the plant and replace its filters during the closure of the mill, according to the Daily Mail. The mill will also clean “high traffic” areas where several workers pass through and test raw materials arriving at the venue for the fungus. Visitors at the mill will also be asked to wear an N95 face mask to reduce their risk of infection. While the source of the outbreak has not yet been identified, sources believe that the fungus likely arrived through rotten or moist wood. Workers also told the outlet that paper produced by the mill is used in magazines and for making pamphlets.
What is Blastomycosis?
Blastomyces is a type of mold that is found in damp soil and leaf litter in the eastern half of the US. It can infect the lungs and cause cough, fever, and chest pain in people who breathe the fungi’s spores. Blastomycosis is a serious fungal infection caused by Blastomyces dermatitidis and primarily affects the lungs.
In severe cases of infection caused by Blastomyces, the fungus can spread from the lungs to other organs, including the muscles, bones, and brain. The disease reportedly has a mortality rate of about one in 100 patients, as per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The condition can be treated with drugs, including antifungals, which are required to be taken for up to a year. Public health officials have said that the infection does not spread from human to human.