The University of Maine System is forming partnerships with The Jackson Laboratory and ConvenientMD to conduct comprehensive COVID-19 testing at its campuses this fall and plans to announce details of the reopening of in-person instruction on Wednesday.

The testing program focusing on students, who are potentially asymptomatic carriers of the virus, will be available at all seven University of Maine System campuses and the University of Maine School of Law, according to a news release. The strategy is to test and isolate people who are infected to slow transmission of the virus. The system formed a Scientific Advisory Board to help plan for the reopening, and devised the testing partnerships.

University of Maine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan

In a news conference Tuesday, UMaine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy said that the testing strategy is one of the key pieces that allows the system to reopen for its more than 30,000 students.

A critical way to contain the virus is to have widespread testing, tracing and isolation strategy in place. Quarantining people who are COVID-19 positive, especially early in the infection when they may not know they are sick, can stop the virus in its tracks.

“We have always fully recognized the virus itself is in charge,” Malloy said. “All we can do is do the best that we can to make the right decisions based on the science.”

The testing at the universities comes at a time when Maine is ramping up statewide testing. When a partnership between the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Idexx laboratories in Westbrook is fully in place in July, the testing capacity of about 35,000 tests per week will be about seven times higher than it was in April and early May. The expanded capacity could give Maine enough testing to effectively suppress the virus, according to metrics published this week by the Harvard Global Health Institute.

UMaine President Joan Ferrini-Mundy said in a news release that “we know that one of our biggest community health challenges is that asymptomatic people can be transmitting the coronavirus for weeks. Our screening strategies will help us identify and isolate infection.”

UMaine System officials said on Tuesday they are still working on details of how the testing program will be run, such as whether all students and staff will be tested, or whether testing will be more targeted.

Most colleges are still developing strategies for reopening. Bates College in Lewiston announced Monday that it will conduct universal testing on students and staff returning to campus, with each student undergoing two rounds of testing. Details for Bates’ testing regimen will be announced later this summer. Bowdoin College in Brunswick decided to switch to online learning for most returning students.

At Colby College in Waterville, officials announced this week that all students, faculty and staff will be tested three times in the opening weeks of the semester, and after that, everyone will be tested twice per week. Colby plans on administering about 85,000 tests in the fall semester, according to the school’s website.

UMaine System spokesman Dan Demeritt said that the program will cost about $1 million, depending on the number of tests needed.

“Our agreements are flexible and expandable to meet the testing strategies we will be developing with the guidance of the University of Maine Scientific Advisory Board and civil authorities,” Demeritt said in an email response to questions. He said tests results will be returned within 24 hours.

Many of the details are still being worked on, including how to test students engaged in group activities, such as team sports or extra-curricular activities.

ConvenientMD walk-in clinics will provide “wraparound” services, conducting testing at sites at each university and reporting results. The samples will be tested at The Jackson Laboratory, a research laboratory based in Bar Harbor.

Melissa Maginnis, UMaine assistant professor of microbiology and virologist, pointed out in a statement that the coronavirus can be transmitted for up to 14 days by infected people who have no symptoms, and since it may be some time before a vaccine is available, other protective steps are necessary.

Dr. Edison Liu, president and CEO of The Jackson Laboratory, said the partnership with UMaine will “have a broad impact across the state as a scientifically based reopening strategy.”

“At The Jackson Laboratory we are dedicated to having a positive impact on human health, and as part of that mission, we are proud to join together as a community to help one another during this pandemic,” Liu said in a statement.

Dr. Mark Pundt, president and chief medical officer at ConvenientMD, said the partnerships are “proactive steps to navigate this pandemic as it continues to evolve.”

Malloy also participated in a virtual briefing with lawmakers on the state’s budget-writing committee Tuesday and said the system expects to finish the fiscal year that ended Tuesday with a $30 million loss, including the $12.8 million in room and board expenses reimbursed to students.

UMS has been allocated $8.9 million in federal CARES Act funding to help cover the costs of transitioning more classes to online delivery. But Malloy said the financial losses for the 2021 fiscal year, which begins Wednesday, are anticipated to be $45 million.

That figure includes $12.1 million for testing and contact tracing during the fall and spring semesters, $10 million in lost housing and dining revenue because of the need to reduce occupancy, $2 million for PPE, and $14.5 million in COVID-related research and development.

“This will come at great expense, but the bigger cost will be if we don’t meet the state’s education and workforce needs,” Malloy told lawmakers on the Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee.

Staff Writer Kevin Miller contributed to this story.

 

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