GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Weeks after the first cases in a blastomycosis outbreak were discovered in the Upper Peninsula, Public Health of Delta & Menominee Counties confirmed one person has died from the fungal infection.
Late Friday, the local health department announced that a contractor at the Escanaba Billerud Paper Mill passed away after complications with blastomycosis.
“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,” PHDM Health Officer Michael Snyder said in a statement.
The death was announced one day after Billerud announced they were temporarily shutting down the Escanaba mill for three weeks to allow for additional cleaning based on recommendations from the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health.
“Everyone at Billerud is deeply saddened by the news,” Brian Peterson, operations vice president for the Escanaba Billerud Paper Mill said in a statement. “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.”
According to Billerud, the company was first notified about possible blastomycosis infections on March 3. PMDH was notified by a local hospital that they had found several atypical pneumonia infections, all from people affiliated with the mill.
Follow-up testing, which can take a couple of weeks, confirmed that some of the infections were caused by blastomycosis, a type of fungus that grows in moist soil and decomposing matter. People are infected by directly breathing in the fungal spores, meaning it cannot spread from person to person.
PMDH first announced they were investigating an outbreak involving 15 people on March 9. By April 4, the number was up to 81 likely infections, with 19 confirmed and 62 suspected cases. PMDH now says 21 cases have been confirmed and 76 people are considered suspected cases. Of the 97 total cases, 12 people have been hospitalized. All 97 are either employees, contractors or people who had recently visited the Billerud mill.
A blastomycosis infection often comes with many symptoms, including fever, chest pain, fatigue, muscle and joint pain, night sweats, difficulty breathing and a severe cough that may occasionally produce blood.
Not everyone who breathes in the spores will develop an infection, but those that do are typically treated with an antifungal medication.
Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is a known risk area for blastomycosis infection. However, an official with Public Health Delta & Menominee Counties says there has never been an industrial outbreak like this documented in the U.S.
The fungal spores are launched into the air when they are disturbed. PHDM recommends wearing an N95 mask when working in or around moist or disturbed soil or in heavily wooded areas. It also recommends waiting to move leaf litter until it is dry and avoiding digging and disturbing soil on windy days.