Source of deadly fungal outbreak at Michigan paper mill may be impossible to determine, union leader says

Workers at a northwest Michigan paper mill shut down by a deadly fungal outbreak may never know how the outbreak started, according to their local chapter leader.

Gerald Kell, president of United Steel Workers Local 21, told CBS News on Tuesday that the fungus that afflicts the plant, blastomycosis, is endemic to the area, but it may be impossible to identify the source.

“Having gone through the last few weeks, talking to some of the experts in the field, the fungus is endemic to the area, as well, throughout the Midwest,” Kell said. “Anywhere you have rotten leaves, wood, water sources, it’s endemic. As to the actual, specific source on our site, we haven’t determined that yet. And we don’t really know if we can even specifically determine its source.”

At least one person has died and nearly 100 others have fallen ill, local health authorities confirmed on Friday. Federal investigators are preparing to step up their investigation into this unprecedented number of generally rare and life-threatening fungal infections.

“Being the largest outbreak in North American history, from what we can tell, I think we’re going to learn a lot from this experience about how to prevent it in the future,” said Kel. “Obviously routine housekeeping, a bit of preventative maintenance. I’m sure there will be a lot of new protocols developed based on that.”

The latest tally from Public Health Delta and Menominee counties in the outbreak linked to the Escanaba Billerud paper mill includes 21 confirmed cases, where labs were able to spot the fungus in samples taken from people with symptoms. A further 76 cases are considered “probable”, with people who showed symptoms and tested positive in an antibody or antigen test.

A contractor who worked at the plant died after being diagnosed with blastomycosis, the health department said. His name was not immediately released.

At least 12 people have been hospitalized.

“We have a varying degree of cases ranging from very severe, I had a member who was in the hospital for over three weeks, to members who are infected, but really have mild symptoms,” Kell said. . “As a group, we all work together to try to help each other. We really show the solidarity that is a hallmark of our union.”

All cases involve workers, contractors or visitors to a paper and packaging materials plant in the town of Escanaba, Michigan, which is now temporarily closed by its owner, Billerud, in order to cope with the unprecedented epidemic.

“Everyone in Billerud is deeply saddened by this news,” Brian Peterson, Billerud’s vice president of operations for the plant, said in a statement shared by the local health department.

“Anyone who works at our facility is part of our team, and we keep that person, their family, co-workers and friends in our thoughts and close to our hearts,” Peterson added.

Cases of blastomycosis have been reported sporadically throughout North America, from the Midwest to the Southeast. A total of 240 cases were reported to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2019 nationwide. Only 26 cases are reported in Michigan on average each year, according to Public Health Delta & Menominee Counties.

Investigators from the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health first visited the plant last month at the request of Billerud management. The team plans to return April 20-29, an agency spokesperson said.

According to the CDC, about half of people develop symptoms after inhaling spores of the Blastomyces fungus, which often begin with common respiratory problems like fever, fatigue, and cough.

People are often infected after exposure to damp soil or rotting wood and leaves where the fungus thrives.

The CDC reported an outbreak in a handful of Wisconsin neighborhoods last month that sickened four residents, one of whom died, and also sickened several pets. The outbreak may have been the result of construction causing spores.

Serious illnesses can range from dangerous lung complications to the spread of the fungus to other parts of the body. Surgery is sometimes needed when the fungus infects the spine and other parts of the nervous system.

Blastomycosis can be fatal, especially in people with weakened immune systems or who go undiagnosed early in their infections.

According to a letter released by NIOSH following its first visit last month, the agency urged the company to take a series of additional precautions to limit additional cases, including providing N95 respirators, inspecting its systems ventilation and limiting projects such as excavations, which can disturb the ground.

During his return visits, federal investigators plan to offer urine tests to screen for missed fungal infections among employees, collect campus-wide samples and administer questionnaires to workers that could help trace the disease. original source of the fungus.

Billerud initially said Tuesday that it was following federal recommendations and was able to continue to run plant operations “uninterrupted” at the plant despite the outbreak among its employees and contractors.

That changed on Thursday, after the company announced it had decided to “temporarily idle” the plant in order to find and treat the root cause of blastomycosis diseases.

“As a precautionary measure, we will temporarily idle the Escanaba plant for up to three weeks to facilitate additional proper cleaning based on recommendations from NIOSH and other organizations, which requires larger portions of the plant are vacant while this work is carried out,” Christoph Michalski, president and chief executive of Billerud, said in a statement Thursday.

Kell said Billerud worked with the union throughout the outbreak.

“When it comes to health and safety, it’s really everyone’s role to make sure we create a working environment where people can expect safety and leave work as they arrived. You can’t not do this without both parties,” Kell said. “It’s been a collaborative effort. Billerud is the new owner of this facility. And I’m sure they’re taking a much better approach than the previous owners we’ve had. It’s been a joint effort. We’ve helped them all the way through. And he worked together, you have to on this kind of stuff.”

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