In Aug. 24, 2020, file photo, the University of Maine black bear outside of Memorial Gym is decorated in a blue mask. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

When University of Southern Maine senior Connor Blake started his quarantine in early November, he didn’t know if he would be out in time for Thanksgiving.

He spent eight days by himself in his dorm room after finding out he’d been exposed to someone who had tested positive. Six days into quarantine, Blake tested negative for COVID-19.

But on day nine, he woke up with a headache that lasted an entire weekend. He put himself into isolation. He soon developed a dry throat and cough, and lost his sense of taste and smell. On the day he was supposed to be released from quarantine, his second COVID-19 test came back positive.

“There was a very real chance that I was going to spend Thanksgiving in my dorm room,” he said. “But I’m home now with my parents and we’re going to spend Thanksgiving together which is definitely a relief, and I’m super thankful for it.”

Blake was released from isolation the Monday before Thanksgiving, and home in Buxton by Wednesday evening.

University of Maine first-year student Emily from the Portland area — who declined to give her last name — was not as lucky as Blake. She tested positive for COVID-19 last Saturday but has not had symptoms so far. After learning about her test result, Emily chose to stay on campus, although her parents offered to set up a space for her to isolate.

She is spending the holiday in a designated isolation room on campus with a turkey dinner and a remote place around her parents’ Thanksgiving table.

“I’ll probably be a little sad, but I think it’ll be OK,” Emily said. “I’m grateful that I can still Facetime them and keep them safe.”

Across the University of Maine System, 50 students are in isolation this Thanksgiving after testing positive, or quarantining after being exposed to someone who tested positive, according to system spokesperson Dan Demeritt. A lot of these students were identified through asymptomatic testing the university system conducted for all residential and out-of-state students as they left campus this week to finish the semester at home.

As students are stuck on campus alone over the holiday, Maine’s public universities are doing their best to support them. Every afternoon, students in quarantine and isolation get meals delivered to their dorm rooms, which include that day’s lunch and dinner and breakfast for the next morning.

University of Southern Maine senior Connor Blake, who tested positive for COVID-19 and spent 18 days alone in his dorm room, eats breakfast that the university delivered to him daily. Credit: Courtesy of Connor Blake

While students are in quarantine or isolation, designated care managers check in daily with them. The university system has also made the counseling center available to students who are stuck on campus over the holiday.

“That whole care team makes sure that like you don’t feel stranded or helpless,” Blake said. “What I thought was going to be a pretty stressful 18 days was actually made pretty comfortable by USM and the people around me. If anything, it was kind of a luxury to have my meals being delivered to me every day and I didn’t have to lift a finger.”

Emily joked with her friends that daily meal delivery is the highlight of her day. Spending time alone in quarantine has been challenging, she said, although she fills her days with homework, art and phone calls with friends and family.

“In the beginning of the lockdown I was quarantining with my family and I was getting so annoyed. I was like I don’t want to be in this house anymore,” she said. “And now that I’m here, I didn’t expect to miss being with them.”

COVID-19 is more likely to severely affect older people, so both college students said the experience of catching the virus and having to isolate was surreal. While most campus events like college athletics, theater and music performances were canceled this year and students were strongly discouraged from attending or hosting parties, Emily and Blake said they could still socialize with a small group of friends, hang out in dorm rooms and have meals together.

It was a hard adjustment for both when their quarantines took away that limited socialization, they said.

Over 18 days, Connor spent his time vlogging from his dorm room. He started doing food reviews of the daily campus meal deliveries, but after he lost his sense of taste and smell, it turned into a review of just the food textures. He managed to keep the daily videos up for most of his time alone, but on the Sunday before he was released from isolation, his fatigue was bad enough for him to not vlog, and just spend the day on the couch watching football.

“I think on one hand, it was stressful to think about the fact that I was having these symptoms and I didn’t know what was going to happen,” he said. “But at the same time I recognize how fortunate I was to just have a mild cold and be a little tired, because I know that there are some people that have it a lot worse than me.”

Now that he’s home, Blake hopes his sense of taste and smell will fully return in time for the holiday dinner with his parents. He said this Thanksgiving, he’s grateful to all the people at his university who helped make his time in isolation easier.

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