In Aug. 24, 2020, file photo, the University of Maine black bear outside of Memorial Gym is decorated in a blue mask. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The University of Maine System will require weekly coronavirus tests from everyone who lives, works or attends classes on its campuses during the coming semester.

Starting Feb. 1, Maine’s seven public universities will collect 16,000 test samples weekly, representing a large increase over the 2,000 virus tests the university system conducted every 10 days during the fall semester.

The universities will rely on a mobile testing lab located on UMaine’s campus in Orono to test the samples and produce results within 24 hours.

The weekly testing will be mandatory for everyone but professors teaching remotely and students living off-campus who are enrolled exclusively in remote classes, said UMaine President Joan Ferrini-Mundy.

With weekly tests for everyone on campus, the UMaine System will join some of Maine’s private colleges, such as Colby, Bates and Bowdoin colleges, that conducted universal testing of students and staff throughout the fall 2020 semester.

TRACKING THE CORONAVIRUS IN MAINE

The university system is ramping up testing because the COVID-19 landscape has become significantly worse in Maine compared with September, Ferrini-Mundy said. On Sept. 1, 2020, the state had recorded about 4,500 COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic, and was averaging about 30 new cases daily.

Now, about four months later, the state has already recorded more than 32,000 cases, and is reporting hundreds of new cases each day. The state has averaged 627 new COVID-19 cases daily over the past week.

“Positivity rates across the country are high, and they are continuing to increase in Maine,” Ferrini-Mundy said. “We’re very hopeful that this gives us a more comprehensive look at the safety on campus.”

The university system will use a testing system called Shield T-3 developed by researchers at the University of Illinois.

The saliva-based test is between 99.8 percent and 99.9 percent accurate, yielding few false positives, according to the university system. All positive samples are retested using the original sample to further reduce the chance of false positives.

“With this option available, the promise of getting our results back so quickly means we can act quickly,” Ferrini-Mundy said. “Then we don’t have people who might be carrying the virus out and about between their test and when they get their results.”

The university system received $6.5 million from the state’s allotment of federal coronavirus relief funding to cover the cost of virus testing for the fall semester. For the spring semester, the university system has set aside funds in its budget to cover testing, but will also look for funding elsewhere, Ferrini-Mundy said.

When students return to campus on Jan. 25 — a week later than normal, because students will have no spring break — they’ll still go through the old system of random surveillance testing before switching to the new system on Feb. 1.

The university system will work with the partners it used for fall semester testing, Convenient MD and The Jackson Laboratory, to test everyone coming to Maine from outside the state and students living in dorms. Then, weekly testing for everyone will start a week later.

“Once we start to test everybody, we will learn a lot more,” Ferrini-Mundy said. “We are prepared for more cases, and we have our quarantine and isolation spaces ready and our contact tracing teams are being assembled.”