The rollout of universal coronavirus testing at Maine’s public universities got off to a rough start this week, with technical difficulties on the first day that led to 700 wasted test samples and long waits to get tested.
The University of Maine System has now paused the universal testing until Monday.
This week marked the start of a new testing program under which Maine’s universities will collect 16,000 samples weekly from everyone who lives, works or attends classes on a university campus. The university system is using a technology called Shield T-3 developed by University of Illinois researchers and relies on saliva samples. A mobile testing lab on the University of Maine campus in Orono is supposed to test the samples and produce results within 24 hours.
Last semester, the university system tested about 2,000 randomly selected people on campus every 10 days instead of testing everyone.
UMaine and the University of Southern Maine — the system’s two largest universities — were the first to start using the new system. But on Monday, almost 700 saliva samples — 26 percent of the 2,700 collected — could not be traced back to the people they were collected from and could not be tested as a result.
That was because scanners did not recognize the QR codes on those saliva sample tubes. The technical difficulty also meant other students and staff had to wait a long time to get tested. (QR codes are optical labels that machines can read to reveal identifying information about the item to which they are attached.)
The scanning problem affected 693 of the approximately 2,700 samples collected on the first day. It affected only UMaine and USM samples, as the system’s five other universities haven’t started using the new system yet.
“Those were essentially lost,” University of Maine System spokesperson Dan Demeritt said. “We weren’t able to test them and identify them with an individual.”
The system this week replaced the QR codes with traditional bar codes that arrived Wednesday, and expects to resume limited testing this week before restarting universal tests on Monday.
“We’ve been testing them today, and they’re all 100 percent working so we get an accurate scan,” Demeritt said Wednesday. “We also got a software update, so that we can verify that the scan is working and is accepted at the point of collection.”
Chancellor Dannel Malloy acknowledged in a letter to students and employees that the first day of testing was “a frustrating experience” that “took too long for nearly everyone.”
While the new testing system has yet to fully launch, virus tests the university system has conducted over the past two weeks show the coronavirus has been circulating less among university students and employees than the general public in Maine.
The positivity rate across the system over the last two weeks of testing was 0.76 percent — less than one positive result for every 100 tests. By comparison, Maine’s overall positivity rate for roughly the last two weeks of January was 3.9 percent.