Delta County health officials explain process of finding source for blastomycosis among Billerud Mill workers

The health department is working to collect patient information.
Published: Mar. 20, 2023 at 6:22 PM EDT
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ESCANABA, Mich. (WLUC) - We are learning why the investigation into cases of blastomycosis among employees of Escanaba’s Billerud Mill may take some time.

Right now, Public Health Delta & Menominee Counties said it is working to collect patient information. The department said this is vital in finding the source of an infection.

“To try and better understand the site of exposure and what we can do to prevent a continuation of that disease within the community,” said Michael Snyder, PHDM health officer.

PHDM was first notified on Feb. 28 of an a-typical pneumonia among several mill workers. The number of infected quickly increased to 8 by March 7, 15 cases by March 9 and now 35. The state averages 25 cases a year.

The health department says blastomycosis is one of 78 reportable communicable diseases.

“Even a condition of interest to the state can make it onto that list. Usually, it can be spread from person to person but not all the time,” said Jennie Miller, PHDM communicable disease coordinator.

Blastomycosis does not spread between people but is instead caused by breathing in the spores of the blastomycoses fungus, which is common in the Upper Peninsula.

Miller said if someone is infected, the case must be reported to a local health department.

“Either the physician reports directly or we also get a lot of stuff from labs,” Miller said. “Certain positive lab results get flagged, sent over to our Michigan disease surveillance system where we find them because we check that database daily for cases.”

Miller adds that after a case comes to the department’s attention, staff members get in contact with the person.

“We ask them questions, collecting data maybe from a provider office, maybe requesting some of their medical records. the public health code allows us access this information when it is one of these reportable conditions,” Miller said.

While all infected individuals are employees of Billerud, the mill is not yet confirmed as the site of infection.

However, the Escanaba mill’s vice president of operations said the company has taken precautionary steps. Those include cleaning high traffic areas and ventilation systems, encouraging employees to wear provided N95 masks and working with an industrial hygienist.

On Friday, the operations vice president sent us a statement saying:

”At Billerud, the health and safety of our employees is always our first priority. We are very alarmed and concerned with the illnesses our employees are experiencing.”

In addition, Billerud’s communications team says the company is in “constant communication” with PHDM and that the investigation could take some time.

Billerud’s Escanaba mill employs 830 people. The company said mill operations have not been disrupted at this time.