Maine colleges, including the state’s public university system, are expanding COVID-19 testing this spring as part of an effort to bring students back to campuses safely amid surging case numbers.

The University of Maine System announced a new testing partnership with testing provider Shield T3 on Friday that will include a mobile testing laboratory in Orono where results will be processed on-site, eliminating the need to ship test samples out of state. All staff and students who work, live and study in person on the system’s seven campuses will be required to participate in the weekly testing this spring.

“The reality is the background rate of infection in Maine is far, far higher than it was in August when we began the last semester and even higher in some of the states where many of our students come from,” said University of Maine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy.

There are more than 30,000 faculty, staff and students across the system, about 16,400 of whom are expected to be tested weekly using saliva-based PCR, or polymerase chain reaction, tests. The testing program could cost the system more than $18 million for the semester, but Malloy and campus leaders said the substantial increase in testing is necessary in light of rising case numbers in Maine and nationally.

“We’ve been watching the data and the scientific work over the last several months and based on the increases in positivity as we watch other university systems, we know the right thing to do is to go to universal testing once per week,” said University of Maine Orono President Joan Ferrini-Mundy, who chairs the system’s Scientific Advisory Board. “It would give us a very good tool for being able to understand instances of the virus on our campuses and the ability to then very rapidly address positive cases with quarantine, isolation and contact tracing.”

In the fall, the system employed a three-phase testing regimen that included two rounds of asymptomatic testing for all residence hall and out-of-state students, and for special populations such as student athletes and those participating in off-campus clinical experiences. Starting in September, random groups of 2,000 employees and students were then tested at least every 10 days. Instances of the virus have been low, with only 127 positive test results out of more than 39,900 tests administered as of Jan. 8.


The new partnership with Shield T3 is scheduled to start the week of Feb. 1 and continue through commencement on May 8. Prior to Feb. 1, the system will be working with existing testing partners to conduct mandatory arrival testing of residential students, community members traveling from outside Maine and special populations before the Jan. 25 start of classes. Immediate, required re-testing of the same cohorts will occur before the end of January.

Private colleges in Maine are also expanding their testing capacity as they welcome students back in the coming weeks. Both graduate and undergraduate students at the University of New England are required to report to campus with a negative test result and be tested again upon arrival. The university is also increasing surveillance testing to test about one-quarter of the campus population weekly as well as employees and students who are considered high-risk. On-demand testing at student health centers and wastewater testing will remain in place.

UNE began testing for the spring semester on Jan. 3. As of Thursday, seven students had tested positive out of more than 1,300 tests.

“We are really, really pleased with how well things went in the fall,” said UNE President James Herbert, noting that continued diligence with masking and social distancing will also be key to colleges’ strategies this spring. “The reason we’re increasing testing capacity isn’t because things didn’t go well in the fall. It’s the increased prevalence of the virus.”

Saint Joseph’s College in Standish, which will begin welcoming students back in a phased approach starting with freshmen next week, is increasing its wastewater testing as well as implementing weekly antigen testing for students that will be followed up with PCR testing for those who receive an initial positive. It typically takes longer to receive the results of PCR testing, although it is considered more accurate then antigen testing.

At Bowdoin College, sophomores, juniors and seniors are expected to return to campus beginning Feb. 5 while freshmen will study remotely in the spring semester, except for those who are unable to do so. Bowdoin’s testing protocols will remain mostly unchanged, said Doug Cook, a spokesman, in an email.

Students will be asked to take a pre-arrival PCR test. One small change is that in addition to a second PCR test upon arrival, students will also be given an antigen test to allow the college to more rapidly screen for and isolate any potential positive cases. For the month of February, students will take three PCR tests per week and then beginning in March and going forward, they will take two PCR tests each week.

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