University of Maine sophomore Devon Hokanson moves into Hart Hall on Aug. 24. All residence hall students had to get tested for COVID-19 when they moved in. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN

It’s not testing all of its students and employees, but the signs so far are encouraging that the University of Maine System is successfully detecting COVID-19 cases and limiting the disease’s spread on its campuses as the fall semester begins.

Maine’s universities have tested all students living on campus, students from out of state and other selected groups in the first weeks of the fall semester. They’re also testing about 2,000 randomly selected students and employees every 10 days throughout the semester until students leave campus before Thanksgiving and continue the semester remotely.

And so far, 13 people have tested positive out of the 14,713 tests the university system has conducted this semester, giving the universities a positivity rate of 0.09 percent, which is lower than Maine’s positivity rate of 0.5 percent for the past two weeks. As of Tuesday, the state’s universities, which about 30,000 students attend, had no active cases, and everyone in isolation because they had either tested positive or potentially been exposed to the virus had been released.

Maine has recorded 44 COVID-19 cases at 10 colleges and universities — both private and public — since the start of the fall semester, according to The New York Times’ national college campus case tracker. Only four states — Alaska, Hawaii, Montana and Vermont — have seen fewer cases on college campuses.

The University of Maine System’s $6 million testing push won’t reach all students and employees, unlike the universal testing programs on the campuses of some of Maine’s private colleges — which have fewer students and employees to test — but so far it appears to be doing its job, said Dr. Peter Millard, a former epidemiology staffer at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and an adjunct professor with the University of New England.

“As long as they have a flexible plan that they can change as the prevalence changes in the community, I think they’re in pretty good shape,” he said.

That flexibility was on display this week as the university system expanded testing in southern Maine in response to growing spread of the virus in York County, which is feeling most of the ripple effects from an Aug. 7 wedding in the Millinocket area.

Home to 15 percent of Maine’s population, York County has accounted for more than 40 percent of the state’s new virus cases since mid-August. It’s also home to the bulk of the state’s active virus outbreaks, including a large one at the York County Jail, where an employee attended the wedding in the Katahdin region and brought the virus back to the facility.

The expanded testing will target all students who live in residence halls at the University of Southern Maine’s Gorham campus, which is just across the border from York County; employees and students of the University of Maine School of Law who live in York County; and those who visit and work at two university system properties in York County — the University of Maine at Augusta’s Saco learning center and the University of Maine Cooperative Extension’s office in Springvale, which is part of Sanford.

The university system’s level of testing, coupled with other methods to screen for the virus on campus such as sampling of wastewater that can show signs of a virus outbreak before infected people show symptoms, should be enough to give university officials a picture of whether the virus is spreading on campuses and to what extent, said University of Maine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy.

“But in a situation where we need to amplify understanding, then we do more,” he said.

A recent COVID-19 outbreak at Boston College had students, parents and epidemiologists questioning that university’s choice to only test students when they arrived on campus and then do random spot testing after that. While many private colleges, including Colby, Bowdoin and Bates in Maine, have chosen to conduct universal testing on their campuses — and to test their community members multiple times a week — these institutions are more affluent and have smaller student bodies than the University of Maine System.

“I think what Colby is doing is pretty much the ideal, you know, testing people twice a week,” Millard said. “But is it really cost effective for a system that’s as big as the University of Maine? That’s the major question.”

One solution universities could use to test more students while managing costs is pool testing, he said, in which respiratory samples from several people are combined and one laboratory test of the combined pool is conducted.

According to the U.S. CDC, if a pooled test result is negative, then everyone whose samples were pooled can be presumed negative with that single test. If the result is positive, each sample in the pool would need to be retested individually to find the positive samples.

“Here in Maine, where you have a very low positivity rate, you could save resources and catch more people,” Millard said.

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