In this Sept. 2020 file photo, a wastewater sample is collected at the University of Maine to test it for the presence of COVID-19. Credit: Nina Mahaleris / The Penobscot Times

The University of Maine System has expanded its COVID-19 wastewater monitoring program for the spring semester to include additional sample collection sites, increased sampling and testing frequency, according to spokesperson Dan Demeritt.

The expansion will allow officials to closely track the presence of COVID-19 on UMS campuses — covering 3,852 residential students, or 97 percent of the student population — and surrounding communities.

Any detectable level of virus fragments found in the wastewater could be a warning signal of a potential outbreak to come, as people can shed the virus in their stools before developing symptoms.

Increasing levels of virus fragments also can be found in wastewater up to one week before cases begin to rise in a community.

Samples will be collected twice weekly at the University of Maine in Orono, University of Maine at Fort Kent, University of Maine Presque Isle, University of New England Biddeford campus and University of Southern Maine Gorham campus, Demeritt said. The program will also analyze samples collected at the municipal wastewater facilities in Orono and Farmington.

Previously, the wastewater samples from UMaine, UMFK, USM-Gorham and the town of Orono were analyzed once a week during the fall semester.