After tending to a resident, a nurse leaves their room at Tall Pines in Belfast.

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Late last month, University of Southern Maine student Maha Jaber received an email from University of Maine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy that listed opportunities for university students and staff to help out during the coronavirus pandemic. She signed up to provide whatever assistance she could before she finished reading the email.

Jaber is a rising USM senior studying nursing. She also works full time at Maine Medical Center in Portland providing interpreter and cultural liaison services, and she serves on the disaster action team for the American Red Cross’ Maine chapter.

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

“When I saw the opportunity to be able to do something more hands-on, I took it,” she said. “It’s kind of ingrained in how I was raised, to be honest. I was raised by a mother who always taught us to give whatever we can, in whatever capacity that we can.”

Jaber, who lives in Portland, is one of 193 nursing students and faculty members from across the University of Maine System who have volunteered to work in hospitals, nursing homes and other health care settings that need them as those facilities find themselves on the front lines of fighting COVID-19 in Maine.

Almost a month after the University of Maine System sent out its survey, two nursing homes that have been hit hard by the coronavirus are working out agreements with the university system to have nursing program faculty and students who are Certified Nursing Assistants and licensed nurses join their facilities.

Some students and professors will soon join staff at the Maine Veterans’ Homes facility in Scarborough and Tall Pines Retirement and Healthcare Community in Belfast as those facilities contend with some of the largest coronavirus outbreaks in the state, said University of Maine spokesman Dan Demeritt.

As of Friday, 30 residents and 20 staff members at the Maine Veterans home in Scarborough had tested positive for the coronavirus, and 11 people had died from it. At Tall Pines, 31 residents and 11 staff had tested positive, while 10 people had died.

The nursing homes are two of six in Maine that have recorded coronavirus outbreaks that had infected 133 residents and 78 staff members total as of Friday.

With the outbreaks infecting staff members as well as residents, nursing homes have become even more stretched than normal as they try to compensate for staff shortages. Even in normal times, Maine nursing homes were facing persistent staff shortages. Nursing assistants whose responsibilities include helping residents bathe, dress and go to the bathroom earned a median wage of $14.59 per hour in Maine last year.

The university system is in talks with the Scarborough facility to send four CNAs and two nurses to work alongside staff, Demeritt said. The veterans home is already using staffing agencies to fill these roles, on top of the contract with the University of Maine System, Maine Veterans’ Homes spokesman Josh Scroggins said.

Except for those students and faculty who have offered to volunteer, the university system will cover wages up front, then bill the nursing homes.

While the first wave of students and faculty who signed up to help with surge staffing prepare to join nursing homes, most — including Jaber — are waiting for their first assignments.

And even as COVID-19 cases and deaths rise in Maine, the risk of contracting the highly-contagious respiratory illness is not stopping Jaber or Debbie Saber, an assistant professor of nursing at UMaine in Orono, from offering to work on the front lines.

Saber has been a full-time faculty member at UMaine and also works in research at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor. But she’s signed up through both her employers to be on the roster for surge staffing in case her services as a registered nurse are needed.

“I’m in a place also in my life where I can give more now than when people have small children, because you have to worry about the children getting infected,” she said. “It’s not without risk, but I’m comfortable going in and helping where I need to be, and that’s basically what drove me to sign up.”

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