The University of Maine System announced Wednesday that it will require COVID-19 vaccinations for all students who are on campus this fall, a change in policy the system said is due to growing concerns about the severity of the delta variant.

The announcement represents a change from the system’s earlier stance that it would require COVID-19 vaccinations for employees and students once a vaccine had received full approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It also comes as a growing number of employers, colleges and universities, and healthcare providers around the country are announcing COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

“Science has been our guide throughout the pandemic and suggests that almost everyone is safer through vaccination,” University of Maine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy said in a statement. “The data around the delta variant is sobering and we are expediting our plans to require vaccination for our in-person population as part of our multifaceted approach to student safety and public health this fall.”

A similar requirement for staff is being considered and Malloy said the system is in discussions with labor unions. The system verifies vaccination status by using a secure mobile app that uploads images of vaccination cards issued by health care providers.

The university system’s announcement comes as Maine reported 126 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, continuing a trend of increasing case counts. There were no additional deaths. The seven-day daily average of new cases jumped to 103 on Wednesday, compared to 66.9 a week ago and 20 a month ago.

Since the pandemic began, Maine has recorded 70,844 cases of COVID-19 and 900 deaths. Maine hospitals had 43 inpatients with COVID-19 on Wednesday, with 19 in critical care beds.

The new case numbers reflect rising rates of infection in Cumberland, Kennebec and Piscataquis counties, placing those counties into the substantial transmission category where the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends mask wearing indoors for all people. Lincoln, York, Penobscot and Somerset counties already were in the substantial transmission category.

Waldo County remains in the “high” transmission category, where mask wearing also is recommended. Washington County has moved into the “low” transmission category, joining Sagadahoc. All other counties are in the “moderate” category.

Sean Scott, 21, is a student at the University of Maine who is taking summer classes at USM in Portland. Scott, who has been vaccinated, said he isn’t sure if the University of Maine System’s decision to require vaccinations for all students who are on campus this fall is fair. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

There are no open outbreak investigations in Waldo County and case investigations point to community transmission as the reason for that county’s current high transmission rate, Robert Long, the Maine CDC spokesman, said in an email.

“We continue to explore ways to help Maine people and visitors understand the current risks associated with COVID-19 transmission,” Long said. “Vaccination remains the best way to reduce those risks, specifically death and hospitalization with COVID-19.”

With a surge in cases and the more contagious delta variant spreading throughout the United States, more employers are mandating COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of employment.

In Maine, MaineHealth, the state’s largest health care network that includes Maine Medical Center in Portland, announced on Tuesday that COVID-19 immunization would be required for all employees by Oct. 1. The network followed similar decisions by Northern Light Health and Millinocket Regional Hospital in the last week.

Major employers outside of health care also are starting to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for employment, including Walmart, Disney, Facebook, Google and Tyson Foods. Several private colleges and universities in Maine and elsewhere also have required the vaccine for staff and students.

Sean Scott, a student at the University of Maine Orono who is taking a summer class at the University of Southern Maine, said Wednesday he’s neither for nor against the university mandating vaccines for students though he is vaccinated. “I can see both sides of it,” said Scott, 21. “You want people to stay safe, but I can also see it’s not really right to force people to get a vaccine when it’s their bodies.”

Rachael Zucker, a student at USM, supports the mandate and has also been vaccinated. “I feel like people my age are pretty open to vaccination and understanding why, especially because right now COVID is going up in our area, so it makes sense,” said Zucker, 21.

Wednesday’s announcement means students who verify their status as fully vaccinated with the university system or who have received their first shot by Aug. 20 will remain eligible to participate in on-campus activities and classes in the fall semester.

Exemptions will be granted for students with a documented medical condition that prevents them from getting vaccinated or those with a sincerely held religious belief that would prevent vaccination.

The system is asking both students and staff to submit their vaccination status through an online portal by Aug. 20 – 10 days before the start of classes on Aug. 30.

As of Wednesday, more than 10,300 of the system’s 35,000 staff and students had verified their vaccination status through the portal. Students who are planning to participate solely in remote learning are exempt from the vaccination requirement. That could be a significant number as some campuses, such as the University of Maine at Augusta, traditionally offered a large percentage of their classes online even before the pandemic.

Students who do not verify their vaccination status or receive an exemption will not be able to participate in on-campus activities this fall. “We do have a ways to go, but again we’re announcing it’s a requirement now,” Malloy said during a media briefing Wednesday afternoon. “Before we were asking people to participate. Now it’s a requirement if you want to access campuses.”

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