Bates College students facing the camera, Jane Gordon, left, Nissim Gurung, center, and Molly Furman carry lunches  Monday from the dining hall back to their quarantined spaces on the Lewiston campus. There is a steady stream of students coming and going from the dining facility during the lockdown because of COVID-19 cases. The three students said isolation is difficult, disappointing and frustrating. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON — Just days before its students will be eligible for vaccination against COVID-19, Bates College is trying to cope with its biggest outbreak by far.

The college has extended its lockdown until Sunday in the hope of blocking what has become “an unchecked surge” in the number of students testing positive for the coronavirus.

“We want to do our best to avoid getting anywhere close to a situation that could jeopardize the remainder of the semester,” Josh McIntosh, vice president for campus life, said in a message to students Monday.

The college hit a new high Monday of 60 active cases among its 1,800 students. Those testing positive are in isolation housing. Another 129 students who were close contacts are in quarantine.

All students are required to stay in their rooms except for certain limited reasons, from getting food to going for tests. There are no in-person classes this week.

“Given the recent spike in cases, we have suspended all in-person activities to try to limit as much contact as possible so that we can interrupt transmission of the virus,” McIntosh said.

This is a screenshot of the latest COVID-19 testing results posted Monday on Bates College’s online dashboard, which is updated daily to show where it stands in its bid to keep the coronavirus at bay. Steve Collins/Sun Journal

A Bates official said that through contact tracing, it has found that three social gatherings during the last weekend in March, two of them on-campus and one off-campus, were “the common sources of many of these recent infections.”

“Those who likely became infected at these gatherings then transmitted the virus to their close contacts,” McIntosh said.

He shot down rumors that the spiking numbers had anything to do with athletics. He said no students have been infected as a result of team practices or competitions.

“Rather, unmasked social gatherings have been the most common source of infection, both from recent events as well as those that happened earlier in the semester,” he said.

McIntosh said it is “imperative that all students return to strict observance of the public health measures — face coverings, physical distancing, and frequent hand-washing — that have kept this community safe all year.”

“Most important of all, students need to avoid gatherings altogether, as well as casual unmasked interactions in residence halls,” he said.

McIntosh said medical experts consulted by Bates said the college should keep in-room restrictions imposed last Thursday in place until administrators “see a consistent downward trend” in cases into the low single digits. He said a one-time drop in students testing positive isn’t enough to show the spread has ceased.

Students were tested Monday and will be again Wednesday and Friday. The results will dictate what Bates does next.

“We understand how challenging this current situation is, coming after a long year when everyone on campus is exhausted and many students are struggling with isolation and the burden of current restrictions,” he said. The college is trying to ensure there is support for students who may need help.

Students who are not in isolation or quarantine will be allowed to leave campus to get a vaccine. Bates is providing transportation starting Wednesday for its students who have appointments for immunization shots.

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