A student walks through the University of New England’s Biddeford campus Monday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Two students at the University of New England have tested positive for COVID-19 after coming in contact with a third student who attended an off-campus party last week and subsequently tested positive.

In all, 17 students are now part of a university investigation into the off-campus party, which university officials learned about from someone in the community, said Jen DeBurro, dean of students and assistant provost for student affairs.

The cases and investigation come as colleges around the country are grappling with trying to bring students back in-person and have struggled to control outbreaks and get students to adhere to physical distancing guidelines. More than 26,000 cases have been reported across more than 750 campuses since the pandemic began, according to a New York Times database.

“Having not been at the gathering myself, I can’t speak to what the distancing or masking looked like,” DeBurro said. “What we know is we had a positive student who was at the party and unfortunately now we have some additional positive cases.”

The student who is believed to have spread COVID-19 to the other two had tested negative for the virus before returning to the Biddeford campus, in keeping with the university’s policy. The student attended the off-campus party Wednesday and on Friday received a positive result during on-campus testing. DeBurro said the tests were done four days apart.

“Based on our understanding of the disease, someone needs to have a certain viral load before they’ll test positive,” DeBurro said. “It could be true that they were positive before they arrived on campus, but we can only trust the results of the (latest) test at this point. I don’t think anyone is suggesting we had a false negative. It really comes down to viral load and if they had it they may have not had enough to produce a positive.”


Of the two other students who tested positive, one is believed to have gotten the virus at the party and the other contracted the virus through contact with the other students outside the context of the party. DeBurro said the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention is investigating and will make a final determination on how the virus spread.

The university, with campuses in Biddeford and Portland, now has a total of 25 undergraduate students in quarantine, most of whom live off campus. The university is working to get them retested. The first student who tested positive is from out of state and has returned to their home state, DeBurro said.

In an email to the campus community Monday, DeBurro said the university is doing a conduct review related to the party that could result in discipline, including suspension.

A sign welcoming students back to school is hung near the entrance of the University of New England’s campus in Biddeford. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“The easiest of practices were completely disregarded, and the consequence of that choice is now playing out,” DeBurro said in the email. “Perhaps more disturbing is that some of the students (now) under quarantine did not participate in that gathering. The carelessness of some community members has had a direct impact on others.”

She said the university has been trying to impress on students the need to adhere to social distancing and health and safety precautions related to COVID-19.

“We’re continuing to put that information out into the community on an ongoing basis,” DeBurro said. “It was always the intention we would put the message out there but continue to reiterate it.”

Colleges and universities in Maine are just starting classes for the fall and many already have reported a handful of COVID-19 cases on campus. The University of Maine System on Monday was reporting 12 active cases among students and employees systemwide, including eight at the University of Maine at Orono, one at the University of Maine at Farmington, two at the University of Southern Maine and one at the University of Maine School of Law.

The public university system has set aside or identified 607 units of campus-based or hotel housing that can be used to support students or employees who are required to isolate or quarantine. Less than 2 percent of available isolation and quarantine space is currently in use.

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