Students walk this week beside Mantor Library at the University of Maine at Farmington. The spring semester, which began Monday, will see residents on campus tested weekly for COVID-19. Wastewater samples from the town’s sewer plant are being tested for virus fragments at the University of Maine’s laboratory in Orono. Andrea Swiedom/Franklin Journal

FARMINGTON — University of Maine at Farmington students completed their first week of the spring semester, which began Monday, but coronavirus testing began weeks prior. 

This is the third week UMF has sent wastewater samples from the Farmington Sewer Plant to the University of Maine System’s laboratory in Orono for detecting traces of SARS-CoV-2, or the coronavirus termed COVID-19.  

According to the UMaine System Scientific Advisory Boardfragments of SARS-CoV-2 often increase in wastewater prior to evidence of COVID-19 symptoms in a community.  

“The University of Maine System’s wastewater monitoring program is a valuable tool in assessing the health of the local community in regards to COVID-19,” UMF President Edward Serna said. “The expansion of the program’s resources and expertise to include analyzing samples at the Farmington wastewater facility is so important to the area and provides another layer of awareness that will help protect the health of our students and community.” 

The wastewater monitoring program benefits town residents and UMF because the samples are a combination of the campus’ and Farmington’s sewage.  

Stephen Millett, the department head of Farmington’s Treatment Plant Facility, has been collecting samples twice a week while he runs his discharge tests. 

“We put out two 250 milliliter samples for them, once on Wednesday and once on Thursday because those are the two days that we have to deposit and do tests for our discharge permit,” Millett said in a phone interview.

Couriers pick up the samples Thursdays and transport them to Orono where Robert Wheeler, a volunteer director of the wastewater monitoring program, conducts tests to detect SARS-CoV-2 fragments.

“The method that we use is called quantitative PCR (polymerase chain reaction) and it’s almost the same at the end point as the methods that are used to detect virus in saliva or a nasal swab,” Wheeler, associate professor of microbiology at the University of Maine, said in a phone interview.

This method detects virus fragments in a sample and amplifies them which provides the quantitative amount of SARS-CoV-2 in the town’s sewage for that particular day.

Wheeler said this number cannot be directly correlated with the number of people who may be infected with COVID-19 because different people shed different amounts of virus fragments. Instead, the purpose of analyzing these samples is to detect trends. By collecting two samples a week, the quantitative numbers indicate whether virus traces are increasing or decreasing which can lead to precautionary measures.

On Nov. 6 when a spike in virus fragments was detected in Gorham’s wastewater samples and no positive COVID-19 cases had been identified, the University of Southern Maine closed the Gorham campus out of an abundance of caution. Virus levels receded in samples the following week and the campus reopened.

The response to wastewater sample trends will be made by individual campus presidents and participating towns will also receive sample data. Orono, Fort Kent, Presque Isle and Gorham will also participate in wastewater monitoring over the spring semester.

Aside from wastewater testing, UMF will also amp up its asymptomatic testing by requiring campus residents to be tested once a week. The university will release further semester-long testing plans for all students with a preliminary enrollment count at 1,719. Students have opted for a variety of modalities this semester with some attending in-person courses, fully remote or a hybrid schedule.

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