PORTLAND, Maine — University of New England will ramp up testing protocols this week, allowing students who believe they have been exposed to the virus at school or social gatherings to access free coronavirus tests, President James Herbert said Wednesday.

COVID-19 outbreaks in southern Maine have threatened the university’s cautious plans to resume on-campus learning during the pandemic. Herbert called the uptick in York County cases “concerning.”

“Going forward, we are asking any students who have found themselves in a situation in which they might have been at higher risk for contracting the virus to voluntarily go to the Student Health Center on either campus to be tested,” Herbert said. 

Southern Maine is struggling to fend off the coronavirus after a wedding in East Millinocket produced the state’s largest outbreak on Aug. 7. That wedding has been linked to ripple effects of outbreaks through York County, where community spread of the virus has increased dramatically over the last week. 

In York County, 167 have tested positive for the virus from Aug. 28 through Sep. 10, according to the CDC. Home to 15 percent of Maine’s population, York County has accounted for more than 40 percent of the state’s new virus cases since mid-August. On Tuesday, CDC director Nirav Shah said COVID-19 was spreading through York County “with remarkable force.”

The increased testing for the university’s 3,984 students, who resumed classes Aug. 26, isn’t mandatory, but it builds on an earlier plan that included broad testing upon entry, ongoing testing for symptomatic students and “focused surveillance testing” of asymptomatic individuals. UNE is not testing its roughly 1,800 employees, who are instructed to find testing through individual health care providers. 

The testing protocols disincentivize students from conducting high-risk gatherings in private, encouraging them to “come forward for testing as needed,” Herbert said. Students who volunteer for COVID-19 tests “will be granted immunity from any potential conduct violations related to the activity that puts them at increased risk,” such as off-campus gatherings, parties, religious services and travel beyond states in Maine’s quarantine exemption

“If a gathering is discovered by UNE staff in a dorm or off-campus-location and participating individuals have not self-identified, they will be subject to conduct violations, whereas if one or more participants come forward to identify that they participated, no one who attended the event will be subject to conduct violation repercussions,” Herbert said.

Many private colleges, including Bates, Bowdoin and Colby in Maine, have chosen to conduct universal testing on their campuses — and to test their community members multiple times a week. The University of Maine system has tested all students living on campus, students from out of state and other selected groups in the first weeks of the fall semester, and is testing about 2,000 randomly selected students and employees every 10 days until students leave campus before Thanksgiving and continue the semester remotely.

A recent COVID-19 outbreak at Boston College had students, parents and epidemiologists questioning that university’s choice to only test students when they arrived on campus and then conduct random spot testing.

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