People play baseball on the nearly empty mall at the University of Maine on Thursday, April 23. Credit: Nina Mahaleris / The Penobscot Times

The BDN is making the most crucial coverage of the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact in Maine free for all readers. Click here for all coronavirus stories. You can join others committed to safeguarding this vital public service by purchasing a subscription or donating directly to the newsroom.

The University of Maine System plans to offer coronavirus testing at all seven of its universities as students, faculty and staff return for in-person classes this fall.

The university system will team up with ConvenientMD to collect samples while The Jackson Laboratory, based in Bar Harbor, will test the samples. New Hampshire-based ConvenientMD runs six urgent care clinics around Maine, while the nonprofit Jackson Lab has been ramping up testing capacity at its Farmington, Connecticut, campus throughout the spring, helping Connecticut and a handful of Maine hospitals.

The testing partnership comes as the university system finalizes plans to resume in-person classes this fall after the universities had to shift to remote learning in March due to the coronavirus pandemic. University leaders will unveil those plans on Wednesday.

The goal of the testing initiative is to identify asymptomatic carriers of the virus so they can be isolated and prevented from spreading the virus to others.

The university system will offer PCR tests, which identify whether people are currently carrying the highly contagious virus and are among the most reliable tests available.

Universities will probably prioritize out-of-state students returning to Maine and certain groups of in-state students, such as athletes who spend time in close quarters with each other, for tests, according to University of Maine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy. Under current state requirements, out-of-state students would have to either test negative within three days of returning to Maine or quarantine for 14 days upon returning to campus or until they test negative for the virus.

“Our recommendation will likely be that you get tested at home, but having understood that not everyone will be able to attain that, then we’ll have a testing system available when those individuals return to campus,” Malloy said Tuesday.

The university system will likely ask out-of-state students who do not bring proof that they’ve already tested negative to quarantine for 24 to 48 hours until they can be tested and the results come back negative. 

The first batch of widespread testing on campus may not include Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont students, since COVID-19 infection rates in all these states have remained lower than most of the rest of the country for months. New Hampshire and Vermont residents are also exempt from Maine’s quarantine requirement.

Malloy said the system has not determined whether students will have to pay for the tests.

The Jackson Laboratory has used a lab on its Connecticut campus that typically analyzes tumors to help cancer patients determine their treatment options to test for the coronavirus since the pandemic began. By early July, the capacity at that lab will expand from testing 5,000 nasal swabs a day to 20,000. 

The lab is currently assisting Connecticut, where the testing lab is based, with statewide testing, and began helping three Maine hospitals — MaineGeneral Medical Center in Augusta, Mount Desert Island Hospital in Bar Harbor and Northern Light Maine Coast Hospital in Ellsworth — augment their testing capacity in April. Two weeks ago, the non-profit helped Maine Maritime Academy test 60 seniors, faculty and crew members before a mission on the academy’s training ship. It turned around the test results in 24 hours.

The turnaround time for the planned testing at UMaine system campuses will also be 24 hours, starting when the lab in Connecticut receives the samples, according to Dr. Edison T. Liu, president and CEO of The Jackson Laboratory.

News of the testing partnership comes as colleges in Maine and elsewhere release plans for reopening their campuses this fall with arrangements to promote social distancing and often limiting the number of students on campus.