The University of Maine’s Virtual Town Hall meeting took place on Oct. 13 following the news that the Harold Alfond Foundation donated $240 million to the University of Maine System. This town hall also followed the third phase of COVID-19 testing, and the panel of speakers explained the research and testing process that is being used to keep the campus healthy and safe.
The panel featured representatives from both UMaine Orono and UMaine Machias including President Joan Ferrini-Mundy and Malissa Maginnis, the head of the scientific advisory board. Opening remarks were made by Ferrini-Mundy, who expressed her gratitude towards the student body and faculty for their continued commitment to education and safety.
Ferrini-Mundy went on to highlight the current statistics surrounding COVID-19’s impact on both the Orono and Machias campuses. At the UMaine Orono campus, there are currently 2,164 on-campus residents and eight total cases this semester. The university has conducted tests with 10,252 participants and has reserved 238 rooms for quarantine purposes. With 11,732 students currently enrolled, around 70.4% of students participate in at least one face-to-face course.
At UMaine Machias they have 101 on-campus residents and have conducted 198 asymptomatic tests, turning up zero cases of the COVID-19 virus this semester. They have 24 rooms reserved for quarantine purposes and 55% of their 218 courses are offered on campus.
Ferrini-Mundy continued her introduction by highlighting the construction of the Ferland Engineering Education and Design Center, which began earlier this semester. Her presentation also featured images of the precautions being taken at multiple campus facilities, including socially-distanced classroom settings, and the New Balance Recreation Center’s current layout. Dedication by the students and faculty to the Black Bear Pact ensures that social distancing measures are upheld in all settings around campus. Ferrini-Mundy also talked about the formation of the President’s Council on Diversity and Inclusion which has begun work to create an environment of inclusivity on campus.
The president acknowledged the tremendous engagement in UMaine’s COVID-19 research from across the state of Maine, citing that many facilities including breweries and other labs have dedicated research and equipment to assisting UMaine’s Scientific Advisory Board. She also advised that frequent communications on campus issues can be found in the weekly Friday Futurecast emails, or online at the University of Maine website.
The conversation then turned to the future and the challenges which the university will be facing in the upcoming winter season and beyond. There was a focus on the need for activities on campus, and for departure plans for the upcoming break. There was also some discussion on support for the faculty and students revolving around the use of new technology. At the forefront of the discussion was the cost of research and the changes occurring in research in the wake of the pandemic.
In terms of fiscal relief, the university has been experiencing many donations. UMaine has received $32,131 from donations through the UMaine Foundation, and $225,114 through the Student Crisis Fund. The university also received fiscal aid from the Federal CARES Act, with $3.8 million going towards students, and $4 million going towards the institution itself.
The University of Maine System received a large donation from the Harold Alfond Foundation which will go towards the UMS Transforms Initiative. The donation totaled $240 million and will be divided amongst four major facets of the university. A good portion of the donation will go toward Blackbear Athletics, and details on this investment will be released in the coming weeks. The remaining funds will go towards student success and retention efforts, the Maine Graduate and Professional Center in Portland and the Maine College of Engineering, Computing and Information Science.
Following Ferrini-Mundy’s presentation on the current state of campus affairs, Melissa Maginnis, the lead of the Scientific Advisory Board, presented the board’s purpose and findings over the past few months. The Scientific Advisory Board was created to provide research and scientifically based evidence for the handling of COVID-19 going forward. Their research focuses heavily on the transmission and response to SARS-CoV-2 in order to find vaccines and treatments as well as efficient testing plans.
Maginnis presented the information that the virus is spread through droplets which can be transmitted through the air or by lingering on surfaces. She also presented the Swiss Cheese Model of SARS-CoV-2 transmission, which illustrates the need for multiple prevention methods to ensure the safety of the public. Given the virality and the rapidity of the COVID-19 virus spreading, the university has implemented rapid testing and isolation, as well as contact tracing.
The university has also been using wastewater testing to determine the spread of the virus on campus. In partnership with CES and Dr. Rob Wheeler, the university has been sampling wastewater once per week to measure viral RNA levels using IDEXX qPCR tests.
The university has also made use of surveillance testing of students and faculty. The surveillance testing took place in three phases, two of which involved baseline testing of certain student groups, and phase three consisting of random testing of individuals and wastewater treatment testing. The first two phases revealed a .09% prevalence rate of the virus, while the third phase revealed a .17% prevalence rate among individual students in the first random sample and .03% among the second group of randomly selected testing participants. For daily updates and information on testing, visit maine.edu/together.
Maginnis concluded her presentation by urging students and faculty to avoid the 4 four C’s which are: closed spaces, crowded places, close contact and contact time. The winter months will make some of these C’s difficult to avoid, but if the campus remains diligent in their social distancing practices and their hygiene, then the virus will spread less.
UMaine’s Auxiliary Operations Director, Dick Young presented on testing protocols and logistics. Young also acts as the interim executive director of Auxiliary Services, the health service liaison and the safe return testing leader. Testing has been ongoing since July 22.
Young noted that the university has three high-risk cohorts. The first is University of Maine System students who are living off-campus and are taking at least one in-person class, which encompasses 2,180 individuals. Secondly, those students and faculty living in university housing total to 2,893. And the third being special groups on campus which arrived before the start of the semester, these include athletics teams, UMaine marching band and fraternities among others, numbering at 675 students. In total these cohorts number at 5,748 people.
Testing took place in the Alfond Arena as well as through drive through testing sites. The university worked in conjunction with Jackson Laboratory and ConvenientMD to distribute and analyze the tests with an efficient 24-78 hour turnaround for the results to come in. There were three courier runs a day to ensure that the tests were delivered and analyzed in a timely manner, and results were made available through secure portal access.
In the event of a positive test result, ConvenientMD and UMS Risk would notify the university. In turn, the university resource team and student health provider would contact the student and JAX Labs would notify MECDC. The university has been assigned two CDC representatives.
The Cutler Health Center also provides COVID-19 testing for those showing symptoms or those who have been in close contact with the virus. They provide a report within 20-24 hours, and students showing symptoms are advised to have testing done through the Cutler Health Center.
The campus has designated isolation and quarantine spaces in the DTAV Baumann-Nelson House, as well as in Knox Hall. They also provide a secure transportation van to ensure that infected students remain socially distanced as they move into quarantine. Students are issued with a release from isolation letter by the CDC at the end of their quarantine period.
Currently, the university has completed phases one and two of testing and is now working through the third and final phase through random selection. Young urges students and faculty who have experienced close contact or symptoms of COVID-19 to reach out to the Campus Resources Self-Reporting hotline.
The Town Hall then turned to the Q&A phase of the meeting. The first question was on the subject of the spring semester. The calendar for the spring semester shows that courses will begin a week later than initially scheduled. UMaine plans on classes continuing in the same fashion as they have in the fall, through a range of modalities. More COVID-19 tests will take place as students return. Registration begins on Nov. 2, and the University of Maine at Machias has also planned their spring semester.
On the subject of student mental health, Undergraduate Student President Harrison Ransley and Vice President for Student Life and Inclusive Excellence and Dean of Students Robert Dana announced that UMaine is looking into making mental health resources available online through Protocol and Nod. They also announced that there are two new faculty members working at the Counseling Center.
Ferrini-Mundy expanded upon the Alfond Foundation grant, and how it will be put to use over the next 10-12 years. There is a heavy focus on campus inclusivity, as well as athletics upgrades system-wide. The university is also interested in the retention and growth of engineering students within the state of Maine, which they hope to supplement with more opportunities for undergraduate research.
With eight weeks remaining in the semester, and winter weather beginning to set in, the panel encouraged students to reach out in the event that they need some form of mental health support.