A fungal outbreak has likely sickened nearly 100 workers at a Michigan paper mill, local health officials say. The infection is known to be caused by fungi that live in soil and decaying wood, but at this time, the source of the outbreak is unclear.
The fungal disease is called blastomycosis, named after the Blastomyces fungi that causes it. People usually become infected by breathing in spores that have been kicked up in the air, though only around half will go on to experience symptoms. These symptoms are typically respiratory and include fever, cough, muscle aches, and fatigue. The infection is treatable with antifungals, but people with a weakened immune system are at greater risk of severe blastomycosis, where the fungi travels outside of the lungs and can cause life-threatening complications.
Public Health Delta & Menominee Counties officials first became aware of the outbreak in late February, after several employees at the Billerud Paper Mill in Escanaba, Michigan, developed unusual cases of pneumonia starting back in January. As of their latest update last week, 19 confirmed cases of blastomycosis linked to the mill have been reported, while another 74 probable cases have been found. About a dozen people have been hospitalized, Gerald Kell, president of the United Steel Workers Local 21 union, told the Detroit Free Press last week.
This appears to be one of the largest documented outbreaks of blastomycosis within the state in quite some time. The fungi lives throughout the eastern half of the U.S., but it’s been most commonly found in midwestern, south-central, and southeastern states. Over the past five years, only an average 26 cases of blastomycosis have been reported annually in Michigan, according to health officials. That said, it is known that the state’s Upper Peninsula—where the town’s mill is located—has been a hot spot for the fungi in the past.
Currently, it’s unknown how so many people at the mill have been exposed to the fungi or whether the immediate danger has passed.
“The health and safety of our Escanaba employees is our first priority,” said Brian Peterson, operations vice president of the Billerud Escanaba Mill, in a statement released by health officials. “Although the source of the infection has not been established, we continue to take this matter very seriously and are following recommendations from health and government officials and implementing numerous, proactive steps to protect the health and safety of our employees, contractors and visitors.”