A plant reporting a large outbreak of disease has unfortunately become common in the age of COVID-19. Less common? An outbreak of an infection that’s so rare you might not have even heard of it.
It was recently revealed that a paper mill in Escanaba, MI has a fungal outbreak on its hands.
An investigation began about a month ago when health officials were alerted to "atypical" pneumonia cases.
According to NBC News, 15 workers at the Escanaba Billerud Paper Mill initially fell ill. Some were hospitalized and treated for bacterial pneumonia, but they weren’t getting better. Tests later confirmed that what they had wasn’t pneumonia after all, rather, a fungal infection called blastomycosis.
According to the CDC, the fungus is inhaled through spores found “in moist soil and in decomposing matter such as wood and leaves.” Often found in areas surrounding the Great Lakes, blastomycosis doesn’t always make a person ill but if it does, the infection can turn serious.
And in the case of the mill workers, while 19 cases were ultimately confirmed, the local public health department says that there are also 74 other probable cases.
According to a statement attributed to Brian Peterson, the mill's operation vice president, the source of the infection has not been established.
That said, experts say that transmission of the bacterial infection is not typically carried out person-to-person – which suggests the source of the blastomycosis may be present somewhere on the facility’s 2,200-acre compound.
According to USA Today, precautionary measures are being undertaken at the plant and workers and contractors are encouraged to wear N-95 masks.
Roughly a dozen of the plant’s workers were so sick with this rare infection that they required hospitalization. Gerald Kell, president of the United Steel Workers Local 21 union that represents about 670 of the mill's employees said he’s “never seen anything like this.”