The Michigan paper mill at the center of what could be one of the largest fungal outbreaks in US history will close for three weeks.
Billerud paper mill in Escanaba, on the state’s upper peninsula, is at the center of an outbreak of blastomycosis. Officials have confirmed infections in 19 people, and it is suspected to be behind 74 other illnesses. ‘Roughly a dozen’ have been hospitalized.
The Swedish company that runs the mill said the closure was a ‘precautionary measure’. Workers at the plant have told DailyMail.com that infections have continued as the plant remained open.
The company will use the closure to deep-clean busy areas of the plant, its ventilation system and replace filters. It will also test raw materials arriving at the plant to identify the source of the outbreak.
Blastomycosis was first diagnosed at the plant in late February, but Billerud has taken more than a month to order the closure — initially telling staff to wear face masks to avoid infection.
Pictured above is the Billerud paper mill factory in Escanaba, upper peninsula, Michigan, where the outbreak was detected
Experts said the outbreak involving nearly 100 people was extraordinary for its size. Outbreaks normally number less than ten cases, they added
Billerud CEO and president Christoph Michalski said: ‘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].
‘This requires larger portions of the mill to be vacant while this work is performed.’
He 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.’
The company said it was first alerted to the blastomycosis outbreak in early March when workers first tested positive for the fungus.
Christoph Michalski, the CEO of Billerud which runs the mill, said it was being closed as a ‘precautionary measure’
The case tally has since grown to 21 confirmed cases and 76 probable cases as of April 7, according to the local health department.
All cases are believed to be among workers at the mill. If the majority of probable cases test positive, that will make it the largest outbreak of blastomycosis to date.
The current largest — a 2010 outbreak in Wisconsin — involved 55 cases, including 30 hospitalizations and two deaths. A source was never identified.
Gerald Kell, who leads the United Steelworkers union representing employees at the plant, says at least a dozen people have been hospitalized.
Some required weeks of hospital care. There are no reports of fatalities linked to the Michigan plant.
Jamie Dier, vice president of the union, told DailyMail.com that those who had fallen seriously ill were ‘not able to breathe’ and ‘coughing up blood or mucus’.
‘Their lungs are filling up with nodules [of the fungus],’ he said, ‘there is like fungal masses on their lungs that are preventing them from breathing’.
Mr Dier said he had to battle a six-week infection with the fungus that left him short of breath and with fungus nodules in his lungs, but he has since recovered.
Health officials warn that blastomycosis cases are rising across the US. In Minnesota, which is also in the Midwest, data shows that infections with the fungus are on the rise
Blastomycosis (stock image of fungus Blastomyces) can trigger symptoms that look like a cold in the early stages, but the fungus can then spread to other areas of the body triggering more severe disease
Mill leaders have been working with health services including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the local Department of Health to get a handle on the outbreak.
While the mill is shut down, the company plans to deep-clean the ventilation system and replace its filters.
They will also be cleaning ‘high traffic’ areas of the mill, where many workers pass through, and testing raw materials arriving at the location for the fungus.
Anyone visiting the mill will also be asked to wear an N95 face mask to reduce their risk of infection.
A source of the outbreak has not been identified, although the fungus likely arrived at the facility on rotten or moist wood.
Paper produced by the mill is used in magazines and for making pamphlets, workers say.
Blastomyces is a mold that lurks in damp soil and leaf litter in the eastern half of the United States.
People can breathe in its spores, which can infect the lungs and cause a ‘cold-like’ illness with symptoms including a cough, fever and chest pain.
In severe cases, the fungus spreads from the lungs to other organs, including the muscles, bones and brain.
The disease has a mortality rate of about one in 100 patients, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Drugs are available to treat the condition, including antifungals — such as itraconazole — which works by disrupting the wall of fungus cells, causing cell leakage and eventual death.
Those taking these drugs, however, may need to keep using them for up to a year to clear the infection.
The infection also does not spread from human to human, public health officials say.