Colby College’s COVID-19 testing program, as seen in this still image from a video produced by the Waterville college, has been underway since students, faculty and staff began returning to campus last month. Photo courtesy of Colby College

WATERVILLE — Only one person in the Colby College community is currently in isolation after testing positive for COVID, an employee who is expected to be released soon.

Five students are in quarantine because they had contact with someone who had the virus, through they have tested negative and are expected to be released soon.

Those results seem to indicate the college is doing well with its testing protocol, a $10 million program that tests students, staff and faculty regularly, with results being returned in an average of 17 hours.

The college is working with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Broad Institute, Massachusetts General Hospital, MaineGeneral Health and the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention.

Doug Terp, Colby’s vice president of administration who oversees health and safety plans at the college, said Tuesday that since Aug. 17, just under 33,000 tests have been conducted. That does not include about 2,000 done before students arrived on campus for the start of classes Aug. 26, which was two weeks earlier than usual. A total of nine people tested positive prior to arrival on campus. Of those nine, only two were symptomatic, according to Terp.

“Overall, these results are well below what we were assuming we’d have,” he said. “From the 10,000-foot level, our goal was to get people here and try to get the campus stable, so we were able to do that.”

The number of students in Waterville is 2,060. Officials said last month that 124 planned to study remotely and 20 are authorized to live off campus because of they have medical reasons for doing so. The semester will end just before Thanksgiving and final exams will be held after that. Students will stay on campus during what usually is October break.

To be transparent, Colby’s website, colby.edu, has a COVID-19 dashboard so the community can see the daily numbers. The site also enumerates what the college is doing to try to ensure the health and safety of not only those on campus, but the 100 or so students and staff staying in the Lockwood Hotel and the about 200 people in the Bill & Joan Alfond Main Street Commons, both in downtown Waterville.

The health code levels listed on the website are designated green, yellow, orange and red, with green designating that there are few identified or contained cases, yellow showing a limited number of cases, orange, a modest outbreak and red, a significant outbreak. The campus is currently listed on green status.

Colby’s COVID-19 Testing Program from Colby College on Vimeo.

 

At Colby’s testing facility, depending on the time of day people get tested, they are in and out in about two minutes, according to Terp.

“It’s really simple,” he said. “We’ve gotten lots of feedback from students, faculty and staff about how easy it is.”

Two couriers a day take tests from Colby, and Bates College in Lewiston, to the Broad Institute lab in Boston. Thomas College also use the same couriers, according to Terp.

“That’s been helpful for Thomas, Colby and Bates,” he said. “By sharing it, we have two runs a day.”

Colby’s plan includes not only consistent and rigorous testing of all students, faculty and staff, but also a face covering requirement, social distancing, and isolation or quarantine when necessary.

Compliance with testing and safety protocols among students, faculty and staff has been very good, according to Terp, who said he has been pleased with how they all have responded.

“For the most part, the compliance has been quite strong and students are holding each other accountable,” he said. “One of the things we’re hearing is that they are so appreciative of being able to come back and be with their friends and in class with faculty. They understand that some friends and relatives are not having that experience. They’re dedicated to abiding by the guidelines and making it a safe semester, and that’s been really encouraging.”

Asked if testing has gone as planned or whether Colby had any unexpected situations come up in that regard, Terp said testing done prior to student arrival on campus turned out to be on a tighter schedule than anticipated and in some cases, students got results the day they were supposed to arrive on campus, or the day before. Also, the cellphone application students and staff use to chart symptoms and get test results took a bit longer than expected to become fully operational.

“That’s working well now and gives us good insight,” Terp said.

Terp and chief financial officers and officials with student affairs and health services from Colby, Bates, Bowdoin, Hamilton and Dartmouth colleges have been talking every Monday night by phone with Michael Mina, an assistant professor of epidemiology from Harvard’s Chan School, to talk about how their programs are working, share information and learn from each other.

“That’s been really helpful,” he said.

Maintaining discipline is key during the pandemic, according to Terp. He knows that, while things may be going well now, circumstances can change.

“I’ve told folks here, we can lay our best plans, lay our contingencies, but we have to be flexible,” he said.

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