Nursing student Cam Petit, photographed at USM’s Portland campus on Tuesday, has been volunteering at vaccine clinics and is part of a group of students who are encouraging other students to get vaccinated. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The University of Maine System is encouraging students to get vaccinated when eligibility in the state opens up to all residents 16 and older on Wednesday.

“We want every student in Maine to get vaccinated and we want to pull out all the stops,” Chancellor Dannel Malloy said. “This is our shot, meaning we own it, we should get it and we should make it as easy as possible for all our students to be inoculated and that’s what we’re going for right now.”

As part of its effort to encourage vaccinations, the system is launching an education and information campaign that comes as Maine is seeing a surge in COVID-19 cases driven by people under 30, although cases within the UMaine System remain relatively low. On Tuesday, there were 59 known active cases among more than 30,000 students and staff systemwide.

At the same time, Rutgers, Cornell and Northeastern are among a small but growing number of colleges and universities around the country that have announced plans to require students to be vaccinated against COVID-19 for the fall semester. So far, the University of Maine System and several private colleges in Maine are not taking that step.

In a news release Tuesday, the UMaine System said it won’t require the vaccine because all three vaccines have emergency use authorization. However, the system is “strongly encouraging” students to get vaccinated and is working to facilitate access to community clinics for students, ensuring that students have transportation and the information they need to sign up for shots.

“The priority right now is getting students to the community clinics that exist throughout the state and providing logistical support and information to get them there,” said Dan Demeritt, a system spokesman. “When there is enough supply to host things on campus, that may be an opportunity for us down the road, but right now the priority is taking advantage of the clinics that are available and serving everyone across the state.”

Connor Blake, who spoke Tuesday at USM’s Glickman Library on the Portland campus, is encouraging other students to get vaccinated. “Peer to peer encouragement is really important,” Blake said. “I think that is what college students want to hear.” Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

In a virtual media availability Tuesday, several students across the system said they are planning on getting vaccinated and encouraged their peers to do the same. Connor Blake, a student at the University of Southern Maine who spent 18 days in quarantine last fall after contracting COVID, said he already has signed up to get his shot, though he will have to travel about an hour and a half to Fairfield.

“I think I was probably one of those naïve young adults when COVID first started, thinking, ‘I’m young. I can’t get it and if I do get it I won’t have any symptoms,'” Blake said. “Then that kind of blew up in my face when I did get it and I did have symptoms.”

Blake now is encouraging all students to get vaccinated. “I can’t be any happier myself to say I’m going to get the shot, and I hope many other students do as well,” he said.

Cameron Petit, a nursing student at USM, said while college students may be less at risk for getting seriously ill from the virus, they’ve also sacrificed in-person opportunities and access to internships and clinicals this year. “This is kind of our light at the end of the tunnel,” Petit said. “It’s safe and it’s effective. I really think we have a lot of influence on our peers and we can make a difference.”

Maine is currently seeing a surge in COVID-19 cases driven by young people under 30, who have accounted for nearly 35 percent of all COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began. More than 34 percent of the population in Maine has received at least the first dose of vaccine, but the state is also fighting the presence of the B.1.1.7 variant, estimated to be at least 50 percent more transmissible, as access to vaccinations increases.

“Right now we are in a race against time because we have the virus versus the vaccine,” said Dr. Dora Anne Mills, chief health improvement officer for MaineHealth, a network of hospitals and clinics around the state. “We are trying our hardest to vaccinate as many people as quickly as possible because these variants that have emerged over the last few months and increasingly in the last few weeks are really skyrocketing and we’re starting to see upticks in Maine as well.”

Mills said there is emerging evidence the B.1.1.7 variant is being spread more often by youth and children than by adults. “We have been doing a fabulous job of reducing severe illness and death by vaccinating older people, but now with variants becoming more transmissible, now is the time we have to pivot and vaccinate everyone, especially younger adults and youth because right now it’s about ramping down transmission,” Mills said.

Some studies have shown younger people may be less likely to get vaccinated than older adults. In a report published March 30, the Kaiser Family Foundation found adults 18 to 29 to be among the groups most likely to “wait and see” before getting a COVID-19 vaccine. A recent report from the Pew Research Center also found intent to get vaccinated was highest among those 65 and older.

“With my peers, I think a lot of them are eager to get it, it’s just a matter of actually being able to get it,” Petit said. “I think it’s mixed with everybody. I think there’s a lot of misinformation out there and some people are a little worried about what’s in it. If I ever encounter that, I try to encourage people that it is safe and effective, and it is important for everyone to get it. We may not be as severely affected by it, but we are the ones who are spreading it.”

Among the groups of people who are vaccine hesitant, Mills said offering ease of access can encourage vaccination. “My experience is young people will get vaccinated, but you have to bring the vaccine to them,” she said. “They’re not as likely to seek it out on their own but if the vaccine is near them and they can easily get it (they will). That’s true of a lot of people who will say if it comes to my workplace or if it comes to my college, I will get it.”

Several private colleges in Maine, while not requiring the vaccine, also are working to make it easier for students to access and encouraging vaccination. Bates College in Lewiston is running shuttles to the vaccination clinic at the Auburn Mall starting Wednesday. Bowdoin College in Brunswick has announced a partnership with Mid Coast Hospital and will provide transportation from campus to and from the hospital’s clinic for students who need it.

At the University of New England, President James Herbert sent a letter to the campus community Monday providing information on how to access clinics and sign up for shots, and encouraging staff and students to do so. The university recently lifted a shelter-in-place order on the Biddeford campus after two dozen undergraduates tested positive.

“As we transition back to in-person learning after more than a week of our undergraduate population sheltering in place, we have a renewed sense of how fragile our system of operating our campuses during a pandemic can be,” Herbert said. “The sooner we all get vaccinated, the less likely it is that we will risk similar situations in the coming weeks.”   

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