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A person has died in fungal outbreak at a Michigan paper mill that infected nearly 100 workers

Testing last month by public health officials found that employees were sick from a fungal infection called blastomycosis.

A person has died of a fungal infection after an outbreak at a Michigan paper mill that is likely to have infected nearly 100 people, public health officials announced.

A contractor who worked at the Escanaba Billerud Paper Mill died of blastomycosis "recently," Public Health Delta & Menominee Counties said Friday. The health department began investigating an outbreak at the mill last month after sick employees, ailing from pneumonialike symptoms, tested positive for a fungal infection called blastomycosis.

Brian Peterson, the mill's vice president of operations, said in a statement that officials were deeply saddened by the death. The company and health officials have not identified the company.

“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," Peterson said.

Billerud said last week that it would suspend operations at the mill for "up to three weeks" for the safety of its employees and contractors.

The Billerud paper mill in Escanaba, Mich.
The Billerud paper mill in Escanaba, Mich.Billerud

Blastomycosis is caused by a fungus that lives primarily in moist soil and decomposing organic matter, such as wood, and it spreads through the inhalation of spores, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms can include fever and cough, and people with more weakened immune systems may have more severe cases.

The infection can spread to the lungs and other organs, the CDC says.

The public health department has confirmed 21 cases since March, and more than 70 probable cases have been reported. Twelve people have been hospitalized in the outbreak, according to Public Health Delta & Menominee Counties.

Billerud, a multinational paper and packaging company based in Sweden, said in a statement last week that it has implemented several recommendations from public health experts since the outbreak was identified.

Its Michigan mill was founded in 1911 as Escanaba Pulp and Paper Co. on the bank of the Escanaba River in the state's Upper Peninsula. The river connects to Little Bay de Noc off Lake Michigan.

Blastomyces, the fungus responsible for the infection, is typically found in the areas surrounding the Great Lakes, as well as the Ohio, Mississippi and Saint Lawrence rivers, according to the CDC.

More than 800 people are employed at the mill, which can produce about 730,000 tons of paper annually, according to Billerud’s website.