The University of Maine black bear outside of Memorial Gym is decorated in a blue mask in August 2020. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Professors at Maine’s public universities Monday called on the University of Maine System to make COVID-19 vaccines mandatory sooner than the system has been planning to, and to hold off on loosening mask requirements on campuses.

The professors’ comments came during a university system trustees meeting about 10 days after the system said it would require all students to get a COVID-19 vaccine when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration fully approved one or more vaccines.

Unvaccinated students would be required to be tested once or twice a week for COVID-19 and wear a face covering. COVID-19 vaccines including those made by Pfizer and Moderna have been given temporary emergency authorization during the pandemic but haven’t yet been fully approved.

One faculty member said the university system’s planned return to normal in the fall didn’t take into account the rapid spread of the delta variant, which has become the dominant strain worldwide. In addition, vaccination rates among college-age Maine residents have been lower than for the state’s population as a whole, Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention data show.

Robert Glover, an associate professor of political science at University of Maine in Orono, said that while he was excited at the prospect of returning to in-person classes, the university’s decision to wait until a vaccine was approved to mandate them and to loosen masking requirements gave him pause as infections and hospitalizations have risen among young people.

A new policy went into effect Monday that allows University of Maine System students and staff who have verified their vaccination status to enter university buildings without face coverings.

“Our best defense against being placed into another deadly and disruptive phase of the pandemic is vaccination,” Glover said. “Given our precarious situation, I’m concerned with holding off on a mandate for FDA approval for vaccines, something that’s unlikely to happen until well into the fall semester. It’s our responsibility to use the power that we have to ensure healthy communities.”

Vaccination and masking policies have varied among colleges and universities in Maine. The same day that University of Maine made its announcement to mandate vaccines, the Maine Community College System said it would not require its students to be vaccinated even if the FDA approved a vaccine, though they would need to wear masks indoors. A small group of residential students would need to be vaccinated, but the vast majority of students who commute from home would not be expected to do so.

Both Colby and Bowdoin colleges will require that students be vaccinated, even ahead of full FDA approval.

Monday’s meeting also featured comments from parents who said the vaccination should be voluntary.

One woman said the decision to be vaccinated should “be a choice,” since the long-term health impacts of the vaccine were unclear, a myth that public health experts have debunked multiple times. Any side effects from COVID-19 vaccinations are expected to show up within weeks of the shot being administered, if they show up at all.

James Cook, an associate sociology professor at the University of Maine at Augusta, pointed out that some faculty and staff had children who couldn’t yet get the vaccine or relatives who would be at risk if they came into contact with an unvaccinated person or someone who carried the virus.

He asked that the board consider reinstating previous masking policies and mandate vaccines.

“I want to thank [the board of trustees] very much as an employee who has a wife who is sick with two cancers,” Cook said, saying the board has “instituted policies in the past that are very respectful of risks.”

“And that’s helped to keep my wife alive,” he said.

Lia Russell

Lia Russell is a reporter on the city desk for the Bangor Daily News. Send tips to LRussell@bangordailynews.com.