Last week, University of Maine junior Kylie Temple waited almost an hour to get tested for the coronavirus, but never received her result.
She suspects she was one of the 700 people whose test samples could not be traced back to them due to a technical error as the University of Maine System’s new round of mandatory weekly COVID-19 tests for everyone on campus got off to a rocky start.
When Temple returned for her second COVID-19 test on Monday, she was in and out of the building within 20 minutes, and she hopes to have her result soon.
“It was so disorganized last week, and it was very stressful and I was frustrated,” she said. “This one felt much easier to go through. It felt a lot smoother.”
Students who returned for their second round of tests on Monday said the testing went more quickly and felt more organized than it did last week, after the university system made a number of changes. Four students said they appreciate getting tested weekly — which didn’t happen during the fall semester — especially as new, more contagious coronavirus variants become more widespread.
University of Maine System campuses will collect samples weekly from everyone who lives, works or attends classes there under the university system’s new testing program. 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 that can test 1,200 samples every three to four hours is supposed to test the samples and produce results within 24 hours.
TRACKING THE CORONAVIRUS IN MAINE
After 700 samples could not be traced back to the people they were collected from due to faulty QR codes last week, the system paused testing until this week to replace QR codes with traditional barcodes.
UMaine President Joan Ferrini-Mundy took a COVID-19 test Friday to try out the new protocol, which included checking into the sample collection site on an app and going through quality control to make sure the sample was collected properly.
That new protocol took effect for everyone Monday, when sample collection took 30 to 45 minutes, which is considerably faster than last week but still slower compared with the nasal swab testing universities used last semester, when the system only conducted 2,000 tests on a random sample of people every 10 days.
Most students on Monday said they preferred the nasal swab test from last semester, either because it was faster or because it felt safer.
Clockwise from top right: University of Maine President Joan Ferrini-Mundy holds her test tube and funnel at the COVID-19 testing site at the Collins Center for the Arts on Feb. 5; Dan Regan gives his opinion after getting a COVID-19 test; the final step at the COVID-19 testing site; Ferrini-Mundy and COVID Operations Officer Tim Marquis tour the testing site; Jeff Downs, vice president of consulting for Accuman, exits the COVID-19 testing lab at the University of Maine campus. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN; Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN
“Trying to test an entire campus in a matter of a week is a pretty big logistical undertaking,” said Dan Regan, a UMaine Ph.D. student studying biomedical engineering. “In my personal opinion, I think doing a spit test is probably not the best way to test this many people.”
Saliva testing has proven to be an effective virus testing technique, but the virus spreads through respiratory droplets people let out when they speak — or spit.
Under the new testing system, students are given a collection tube and funnel and led to a large room where they sit at desks about 12 feet apart from each other and spit into the tube. About 20 to 30 students provide saliva samples at a time.
The university system was expected to install plexiglass barriers at each desk to prevent the spread of respiratory droplets, but those barriers were not in place yet at the Wells Conference Center on Monday, Regan and senior Ally Johnson said.
“It’s an open room with dozens of chairs, and you’re just like looking at each other,” Johnson said. “It’s very awkward.”
More plexiglass barriers will be installed this week, according to UMaine System spokesperson Dan Demeritt. And the setup of the mobile testing lab is in progress.
While the lab is being set up, the system is shipping samples to a lab in Kentucky overnight and sending results to students in about 72 hours, according to Tim Marquis, COVID-19 operations officer at UMaine’s sample collection facilities.
Once the lab is ready to process samples, results are expected within 24 hours.