Rare fungal outbreak up to 93 likely cases among paper mill workers in Escanaba

Source of outbreak still undetermined

DELTA COUNTY, Mich. – Health officials in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula are investigating an outbreak of a rare fungal disease among more than 90 paper mill workers in Escanaba.

On Feb. 28, 2023, the Public Health Delta and Menominee Counties was alerted to several atypical pneumonia infections in people who worked at the Escanaba Billerud Paper Mill.

Since then, officials have identified 19 confirmed cases and 74 probable cases of Blastomycosis among mill workers. A probable case is a person with symptoms who has a positive antigen or antibody test.

Blastomycosis is an infection caused by a fungus called Blastomyces. The fungus grows in moist soil and decomposing matter. People can get sick from breathing in spores. The disease does not spread from person to person.

“The health and safety of our Escanaba employees is our first priority,” said Brian Peterson, Operations Vice President, Billerud Escanaba Mill. “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.”

Officials have not yet determined the source of the fungus causing this outbreak. They said the fungus is common in the environment in the Upper Peninsula.

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What is blastomycosis?

Blastomycosis is an infection caused by a fungus called Blastomyces.

According to the CDC, the fungus lives in moist soil and decomposing matter, like wood and leaves. It mainly lives in the midwestern, south-central, and southeastern states, particularly in areas surrounding the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys, the Great Lakes, and the Saint Lawrence River.

People can get blastomycosis after breathing in fungal spores from the air. Most people who breathe in the spores don’t get sick, but some will develop a fever and cough. The infection can be serious if it is not treated.

What are the symptoms of blastomycosis?

People who get sick from Blastomyces might experience the following symptoms:

  • Cough (sometimes with blood)
  • Fever
  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Night sweats
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss
  • Muscle aches
  • Joint pain

What is the treatment for blastomycosis?

Anyone experiencing symptoms of blastomycosis should contact their doctor. There is no vaccine that can prevent blastomycosis, but the disease can be treated with prescription antifungal medications. Treatment should be started as soon as possible after diagnosis.

About the Author:

Kayla is a Web Producer for ClickOnDetroit. Before she joined the team in 2018 she worked at WILX in Lansing as a digital producer.