In this Aug. 24, 2020, file photo, the University of Maine black bear outside of Memorial Gym is decorated in a blue mask. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The last few unvaccinated students within the University of Maine System faced a choice this week: get the shot or be forced to withdraw without a refund.

Students had until Friday to register their vaccine status in the system portal or request an exemption to comply with a vaccination requirement announced during the summer. Otherwise, they will be withdrawn from their courses as of Oct. 31, according to a message sent out by system Chancellor Dannel Malloy on Thursday morning.

More than 21,000 students have submitted proof of vaccination, an increase of more than 10,000 since late July, according to university system data. That’s about 91 percent of the more than 23,000 in-person students across the system’s seven universities and law school who have now shown proof of vaccination.

The requirement has likely forced numerous students to get vaccinated who may not have otherwise, showing the power of vaccine mandates as officials seek to find an end to vaccine hesitancy. The share of health care workers opting to get vaccinated in advance of a mandate for them taking effect this month has also grown as the deadline has approached. The share of hospital workers who were vaccinated as of the end of September, 91.6 percent, was similar to the share of students who had been inoculated.

Young people have been among those least likely to become vaccinated nationwide and locally. About 41 percent of 16- to 29-year-olds in Penobscot County have yet to receive a single shot, for example, compared with 17 percent of those 50 and older.

The university system had announced on July 16 that it would require students to get the COVID-19 vaccine when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave full approval to one of the available vaccines for the first time. It later announced a general requirement regardless of FDA decisions on Aug. 4.

The flagship university at UMaine has gone from 35 percent showing they were vaccinated to around 91 percent, an increase of thousands of students.

Saying it was the time to be “blunt and clear,” Malloy said there was firm evidence that the vaccine was safe and effective. After months of the system encouraging students to get the shot, he said, consequences would begin to take effect for those who choose to not follow system policy.

“We can help, but these final students have to act,” Malloy said.

The university with the highest vaccination rate is one of the most rural. About 93 percent of fall enrollees at the University of Maine at Fort Kent have submitted evidence showing they are vaccinated, according to University of Maine System data. Combined with 25 exemption requests, 97 percent of students have either been vaccinated or been exempted from doing so, also the highest within the system.

The University of Southern Maine had a 92 percent vaccination rate, while the University of Maine had a 91 percent rate. The rate was 91 percent at the University of Maine at Farmington, 90 percent at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, 83 percent at the University of Maine at Augusta, and 82 percent at the University of Maine at Machias.

Machias also had the highest rate of exemptions, with 8 percent (21 students total) having them, meaning that about 90 percent of students are vaccinated or exempt. Students and staff who are exempt will face weekly COVID-19 testing.

More than 700 in-person students had requested exemptions across the system as of Wednesday. Of those, 656 acknowledged exceptions were religious and 57 medical.

The University of Maine System also now requires vaccines for employees unless they want to face weekly testing. As of Oct. 1, 86 percent of full-time employees were vaccinated.