BIDDEFORD, Maine — An entire residence hall of more than 150 students at the University of New England (UNE) was under quarantine following an outbreak of COVID-19 last week. As of Tuesday, the university says all residents of Featherman Hall on the Biddeford campus have been released from quarantine after no additional positive tests were detected.
Three students tested positive for the virus after attending an off-campus event, according to University officials. The Maine CDC defines an outbreak as three or more associated cases.
In an update sent to the UNE community Friday evening, the university said another person has tested positive, bringing the total case count to four.
University officials emphasize that the students who were part of the original off-campus event "were not doing anything that violated Maine or federal CDC guidelines."
"We also want to assure the entire UNE community that these are exactly the types of scenarios that our COVID Response Team anticipated and prepared for," the university said Friday. "The decisive steps we are taking now are intended to prevent a small number of cases from becoming a situation in which we have significant community transmission of the virus on campus."
"I don't think there's a need for us to be any more concerned today than there would be any other day," Dean of Students Jennifer DeBurro told NEWS CENTER Maine Friday.
Students were first notified by the Director of Student Health Services Thursday.
Residents of Featherman Hall on UNE's Biddeford campus were on lockdown until Tuesday as they underwent testing. Classes for those students were remote and food was delivered to them.
In a letter to the UNE community on Tuesday, President James Herbert said residents were tested twice (with the exception of those who chose to return home), and no additional positive cases were detected. Four test results were inconclusive, so those students are being relocated to quarantine housing and will be retested on Tuesday.
DeBurro said the students that tested positive for the virus have are in isolation or have been sent home to isolate.
"We're taking an aggressive approach because we do want to manage the situation as well as we possibly can," DeBurro said. "By shutting down a building, by conducting testing, we can make sure we know the full situation that we're faced with right now."
Through contract tracing close contacts were identified, tested, and relocated to alternative housing.
The five students who tested positive were all close contacts of the original index cases, and they will remain in isolation housing or have chosen to return home.
Herbert says a number of students identified as close contacts of positive cases are in quarantine housing and will remain there until released by the Maine CDC. Those Featherman residents who did choose to leave campus to quarantine elsewhere will be required to submit proof of a negative test before being allowed back on campus.
One employee on the Biddeford campus has also tested positive, but the university says that employee has not been on campus for over a week and the case is not related to the student cases.
"I want to applaud and thank the students for their cooperation over the past few days," Herbert wrote in the letter on Tuesday. "To the residents of Featherman, by complying with the quarantine and staying put, we were able to take the necessary steps to contain any potential spread of the virus. I know this was a sacrifice, one of many that students are making to keep one another safe this academic year, and I continue to be impressed by your positive attitudes and your resilience."
Reaction to the news of the outbreak among students on campus was mixed last week.
"I am a little bit [worried] just because I play soccer so a lot of the first years that play soccer are in Feathermen," first year student Rachel Sledjeski said.
Sledjeski and other student-athletes are undergoing routine testing as well.
Other students are confident in the protocols put in place on campus for both students and staff.
"I'm not worried," senior Aubrey Jane said. "The professors have gone above and beyond to accommodate students who don't want to show up or don't feel comfortable showing up to class."
UNE had another outbreak in late August with the students testing positive after an off-campus party. The students in attendance failed to follow CDC guidelines and faced disciplinary action.
DeBurro said the students involved in the latest outbreak were adhering to safety guidelines.
"Our students actually went out and did what a lot of Mainers are doing on any given day," she said.
"As we embark on these next few weeks with in-person learning, please continue to be vigilant in adhering to CDC guidelines and UNE’s Onward Plan. As the weather gets colder, it will be tempting to gather indoors with friends who are not part of our roommate or household groups," Herbert said. "Consider the potential consequences of those interactions carefully, and get tested if you think you have put yourself at risk. It is up to all of us to take care of ourselves and one another so that we can learn and live on our campuses as safely as possible."