In this August 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 University of Maine System expects to require all students to get the COVID-19 vaccine when one or more of the vaccines receives full approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, system spokesperson Dan Demeritt said Friday.

All unvaccinated students attending classes in-person at any of the system’s seven universities will be required to get tested for COVID-19 once or twice a week and wear face coverings while in university buildings when they return in the fall. The same policy applies to campus employees.

Beginning July 26, all UMaine System students and staff who have verified their vaccination status will not be required to wear face coverings inside university buildings.

“The message then and now will be that vaccination and verification makes everyone’s life easier and safer,” Demeritt said.

Testing for unvaccinated people could be even more frequent if the delta variant begins to spread across Maine and the country, University of Maine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy said. Unvaccinated people also will need to quarantine for two to five days after being tested if they are moving into campus housing in the fall.

The ideal is for 100 percent of students and staff members to be vaccinated, Malloy said. At the very least, the system wants to reduce the risk of on-campus infections and resulting disruptions by making it more difficult to be unvaccinated.

The UMaine System wants unvaccinated students to be prepared to get the shot if the FDA permits general authorization for a COVID-19 vaccine before classes start, Malloy said. The system has hinted at requiring the vaccine with general authorization in the past.

Malloy did not anticipate legal challenges to the restrictions for unvaccinated people and said state and federal precedent had shown that the rules would hold up.

The system decided to announce the policy in light of the emergence of the delta variant, which is hospitalizing many young, unvaccinated people, and policy directives from Gov. Janet Mills on masking, Malloy said.

“If you are not vaccinated, you might be safer at home,” Malloy said. “Quite frankly, I don’t know why you would choose to be unvaccinated.”

The vaccine requirement policy will recognize that not everybody can get vaccinated, Demeritt said. It was unclear Friday what exemptions would be available.

While the system doesn’t suspect that its faculty will be required to “police” students’ vaccination status, the verification portal will allow for random digital classroom checks if needed, Demeritt said

Colleges are trending toward requiring the vaccine nationwide: some, including the University of California System, have shifted from making the vaccine requirement contingent on full FDA approval to requiring it in the fall no matter what.

Unvaccinated students living on campus will continue to be subject to quarantine requirements if they are found to have had close contact with someone who is confirmed to have COVID-19. Vaccinated students will not be required to quarantine.

There may be those who don’t want to comply with the rules, Malloy said, and university staff will cross that bridge when they get there. Yet, he said the system had seen strong compliance with previous COVID-19 restrictions on campus, including mask requirements.

Some classes previously had allowed students who did not want to attend classes in-person to watch lectures over live stream. While the system will try to “provide greater access and flexibility,” decisions on such matters will need to be dependent on technology in classrooms, Demeritt said.

Several private colleges across Maine, including Husson University in Bangor, have already announced that they would require their students to be vaccinated when they return in the fall.

The vaccines are widely expected to eventually receive full approval by the FDA — it is just a question of if it will occur before classes start on Aug. 30. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases,  said Tuesday he would be “astounded,” if full authorization did not occur for all three vaccines.

The three COVID-19 vaccines currently authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, were permitted under an emergency use authorization. Although the process is still thorough, it is faster than a general authorization.

Many experts believe that general authorization of a COVID-19 vaccine could lead the way for universities and workplaces across the country to require the COVID-19 vaccine.

More than 5,000 students have already confirmed with the university system that they are vaccinated, Demeritt said. In an effort to increase that number, the university system will make all students and employees who show proof of their vaccines eligible in a weekly drawing.

Students who win will receive a $1,000 scholarship to help pay for tuition, while employees will receive a “non-cash” prize. Weekly selections begin today and go until Aug. 20.

More than half (56 percent) of full-time staff members in the University of Maine System have shown proof that they are vaccinated, including 100 percent of staff at the University of Maine Law School.

More than 70 percent of eligible Mainers have now received at least one shot of the COVID-19 vaccine, though that number is noticeably lower (56 percent) for Mainers in the 16-29 age range who are most likely to attend college.