LEWISTON — With at least three new COVID-19 cases among students this week, Bates College is seeing its first confirmed cases of community spread.
Two of the students whose tests came back positive late Tuesday were close contacts of a classmate who had already come down with the potentially deadly disease.
As of Tuesday night, Bates had six active infections, with five of the students in isolation housing and another apparently at home. In addition, 62 students are in quarantine in their own rooms because they’d come in close contact with a confirmed case.
College officials worried that the next round of tests may show even more cases.
Joshua McIntosh, vice president for campus life, said in a message to students that they “should be taking steps to reduce your number of close contacts” immediately rather than risk exposure.
The college’s newspaper, The Bates Student, said that “as cases — and tensions — rise on campus, many students are just hoping to make it until Thanksgiving break and avoid being sent home or falling ill.”
The new cases, which follow three found last week, come at a time when cases are on the rise in Maine, including a big outbreak at Russell Park Rehabilitation and Living Center, located across the street from the college’s track.
So far this semester, Bates has had 13 students test positive from among the 1,700 on campus. Seven have recovered. In addition, three employees have tested positive. Two of them have recovered.
Bates told its students to “remain on campus and limit any non-essential off-campus travel” during the final two weeks before everybody leaves for Thanksgiving – except for any students who are medically isolated after testing positive or finishing 14-day quarantines because of close exposure.
McIntosh said that students shouldn’t be exposed to anybody except perhaps their roommates if they are following guidelines that require they stay further than six feet from one another.
Given the growing number of cases, that rule is clearly not always followed.
“Where we have seen close contacts to date is through social groups, small gatherings of less than 10 students in residence halls, roommates and visiting friends in residence halls other than your own,” McIntosh told students.
“Given the current infections on our campus and in Maine, it is critical that we all adhere to physical distancing guidelines and follow all public health protocols,” he said. “Unfortunately, Maine is now seeing its highest daily number of COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic.”
Two of the newly identified cases among students were picked up from testing Monday. The other got a positive test from a private health care provider after traveling home for reasons unrelated to the pandemic, McIntosh said.
Bates students are tested twice weekly. Those who test positive are immediately moved into isolation housing. Anyone who is a close contact with someone who tests positive is required to quarantine in their rooms for 14 days to make sure they don’t spread the disease unwittingly.
Students in isolation and quarantine may not leave their residence hall room or isolation room until cleared to discontinue isolation or quarantine.
This means that beginning this week, students who test positive or are close contacts may well experience disruptions to their November break travel plans and need to remain at Bates until they are medically cleared to discontinue their quarantine or isolation from Bates Health Services. This further underscores the importance of following all public-health protocols.
Since the last day of on-campus classes is Tuesday, Nov. 24, with nearly all students required to leave no later than the next day, the reality of quarantine rules means anyone exposed will wind up stuck in Lewiston for Thanksgiving, college officials said.
Bates plans to finish its semester in December with remote learning. Its next semester is slated to begin in January.
McIntosh warned, though, that students should ”make contingency plans in case your personal circumstances change, or public health conditions make it unsafe for us to open the campus for in-person learning.”