Wastewater Monitoring Confirms University COVID-19 Expectations

Tests for SARS-CoV-2 remain negative in weekly wastewater samples at UMaine, UMFK, and the Gorham campus of USM

Orono, Maine — The University of Maine System’s multi-faceted approach to identifying COVID-19 infection and limiting spread on university campuses and in Maine communities includes weekly wastewater sampling for the presence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.  Over several weeks of sampling at UMaine, UMFK, and the Gorham campus of USM the presence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, has been negative.

Results of the wastewater testing for the presence  of SARS-CoV-2 will be published weekly at the Together for Maine website that also tracks asymptomatic screening results 

The wastewater surveillance plan and ongoing monitoring is being led by the University of Maine System Scientific Advisory Board established by Chancellor Dannel Malloy to help guide the University System’s safe return planning. The Board is chaired by University of Maine President Joan Ferrini-Mundy. CES, Inc, a Bangor-based engineering, environmental sciences and survey firm founded by two UMaine alumni, is the University’s testing partner. 

“Our Scientific Advisory Board, chaired by President Ferrini-Mundy, is an amazing team of researchers and experts who have gone above and beyond to help make our campuses safe this semester,” said Chancellor Malloy. “Their guidance has shaped our planning from the start and will continue to determine how we respond to developments with the pandemic to keep our students and communities safe.”

Quantitative SARS-CoV-2 measurements in untreated sewage can provide information on changes in total COVID-19 infection in the contributing community.  Research also suggests that increases in viral material in community wastewater occur before signs or symptoms of COVID-19.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and other agencies have initiated the National Wastewater Surveillance System to help public health officials understand the extent of COVID-19 infections in communities.

The wastewater infrastructure at UMaine, UMFK, and USM’s Gorham campus allow for community-contained sample collections. The three university campuses represent 78% of the residential student population in the University of Maine System this semester.  

“It has taken the full span of our research university and collaboration throughout the University of Maine System to make wastewater monitoring possible,” said UMaine President Joan Ferrini-Mundy. “Our facilities teams mapping out our infrastructure, our virologists, biomedical engineers, and microbiologists working on the testing protocols, and university and safe return planning leaders who have prioritized science and safety — all have been essential in our work to bring our students, faculty, and staff together for Maine this fall.”  

“Wastewater testing is developing into a powerful monitoring tool for COVID-19,” said assistant professor of biomedical engineering and Scientific Advisory Board member Caitlin Howell. “When measured frequently and carefully interpreted, the information could alert us to unknown infections before they spread throughout a community.”

UMaine also has begun conducting on-site testing of wastewater samples, part of a long-term plan to develop capacity in this area. The wastewater samples collected by CES are now split for testing by both an independent lab retained by CES as well as in associate professor of microbiology Robert Wheeler’s biosafety level 2 lab in Orono. Eventually, in-house wastewater testing has the potential to shorten the timeline for delivery of results, allowing for an even faster response if significant levels of the virus are detected.

“This has been a great team to work with, from contracting to collection logistics to laboratory development,” said Wheeler, also a member of the Scientific Advisory Board. “It has been exciting to develop our own testing capacity at the University of Maine so that we can get results more quickly and get a leg up on the virus. This will allow us to react more effectively to any change in levels of virus RNA in wastewater at these campuses. Student help with the testing has also been crucial to its successful implementation.”

Viral Concentration Have Been Negative In Every Sample

Baseline samples were collected on the campuses in July and August before in-person activities began for the fall semester.  Weekly sampling has been underway at each of the campuses since as early as mid-August at UMaine and virus concentrations in every test conducted thus far have been negative.

Testing Dates and Results by Campus 

Date  UMaine UMFK USM
7/21 – 7/22/20 Negative * *
8/10 – 8/21/20 Negative Negative *
8/17 – 8/18/20 Negative Negative *
8/24 – 8/25/20 Negative Negative Negative
8/31 – 9/1/20 Negative Negative Negative
9/8 – 9/9/20 Negative Negative Negative
9/14 – 9/16/20 Negative Negative Negative

* Sample Not Taken