Malick Kone gets his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine from Elaina Smith at the Islamic Center of Maine in Orono on April 14, 2021. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Nearly two-thirds of Mainers would support a universal COVID-19 vaccine requirement, according to a new survey that comes as a more contagious strain continues to drive up cases here among the state’s unvaccinated population.

The survey, conducted in June and July by researchers at four universities, found that nearly 66 percent of Maine respondents would “somewhat” or “strongly” back a government mandate for the COVID-19 vaccine. The margin of error was 5.6 percent. Support in Maine was just over national levels, with 64 percent of adults across the U.S. favoring a mandate, the survey found.

It was released amid a sharp rise in COVID-19 infections in Maine and nationally. The seven-day average of new cases here sat at 81 as of Monday, compared with 28 just three weeks prior. Cases are at their highest level since February nationwide. Health officials have attributed much of the rise to the proliferation of the delta variant, which may be close to twice as transmissible as original strains of the virus.

The variant is largely infecting unvaccinated people, one reason that cases in Maine remain lower than most of the rest of the U.S. Nearly 79 percent of adults here have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose here, according to the latest federal data. Only four states — Vermont, Massachusetts, Hawaii and Connecticut — have higher rates.

Some leading policymakers — though not in Maine — have proposed vaccine mandates in recent weeks as current vaccination levels have not been enough to blunt the virus and the rate of new vaccinations has slowed considerably compared to the spring. President Joe Biden is requiring federal employees to get vaccinated or face strict masking and testing rules, while governors in New York and California have rolled out mandates for certain workers.

Approval for similar mandates varies broadly based on geography and politics, the survey found. State-level approving ratings for a general vaccine mandate ranged from 45.7 percent in conservative Wyoming to 81.1 percent in liberal Massachusetts. Nationwide, 84 percent of Democrats approved compared with 45 percent of Republicans. Seventy-three percent of urban residents supported a mandate compared with 53 percent of rural residents.

Support for making the vaccine required in Maine is lower than several other highly vaccinated New England states. Along with Massachusetts, Vermont and Connecticut both saw more than 70 percent of adults favoring a mandate, the survey found.

The majority support in Maine still fits with the state’s recent electoral history. In March 2020, Maine voters overwhelmingly rejected a bid to overturn a state law that eliminated religious and philosophical exemptions to vaccine mandates for public school students. Seventy-three percent of voters favored upholding the law, although the referendum took place on the same day alongside a competitive Democratic presidential primary.

State officials here have given little indication so far that they are considering a vaccine mandate, however. Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah said earlier this summer that the state was working on education to increase vaccination rates among health care workers, saying he preferred to “start with the carrot, rather than the stick.”

Mandates are more likely to come from businesses or institutions. In the survey, Mainers were slightly more supportive of vaccine requirements for boarding a flight or for students returning to college in the fall, compared with a mandate for the general population.

Northern Light Health, the state’s largest hospital system, announced Monday that it will require staff to get vaccinated once the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approves a vaccine for full use. The University of Maine system has indicated the same policy, while several private colleges are already requiring students to get the vaccine before they can return to campus in the fall.