In this 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

Maine’s universities are starting the spring semester with more confirmed cases of COVID-19 than at the start of the previous semesters during the pandemic.

More than 200 students and staff members across the University of Maine System are infected with COVID-19 amid the rapid spread of the omicron variant within the state, according to the system’s daily virus updates.

Some 244 of 5,323 coronavirus tests taken by students and staff to start the semester came back positive in the 14 days leading up to Tuesday, resulting in a 4.6 percent positivity rate.

The number of cases is far beyond what the system has seen at the start of previous semesters during the pandemic. The university system recorded 44 infected employees and students following the start of the fall 2021 semester on Sept. 20, 2021. Sixty cases were recorded shortly after the beginning of last year’s spring semester.

While COVID-19 has been less prevalent on college campuses in past semesters, the omicron variant has sparked concerns that it will pose a greater challenge for Maine’s colleges as they attempt to avoid disruptions. Classes began across the university system on Tuesday. Most are in-person, though some departments and professors will start remotely after receiving administrative approval to do so.

Despite the higher number of cases, the university system’s positivity rate is still well below the statewide rate recorded in recent weeks.

That could be due to the university system’s coronavirus prevention measures. Universities are requiring that on-campus students be fully vaccinated. The system is also requiring any eligible students who have not received a COVID-19 booster by Feb. 1 to be tested weekly, among other measures.

Of the 218 active cases among staff and students as of Tuesday, most (121) were at the system’s flagship university in Orono, which also had the highest infection rate among the seven universities — one coronavirus case for every 97 students, according to federal student data.

University of Maine at Farmington’s rate followed closely behind, while the University of Maine at Machias was the only campus to report no active coronavirus cases. Machias is in Washington County, which has also reported the lowest rate of cases during the omicron surge of any county in Maine.