This August 2020 file photo shows sign in front of an entrance to the University of Maine campus that tells visitors they are required to wear masks while on campus. Credit: Nina Mahaleris / The Penobscot Times

The University of Maine System will require all of its students going on campus to get the COVID-19 vaccine even if the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t approve a vaccine for general use before the beginning of the fall semester, spokesperson Dan Demeritt said Wednesday.

Under the previous policy, unvaccinated students could go to campus if they wore masks inside university buildings and were tested for COVID-19 twice a week. Those students will now need to be vaccinated or not participate in campus activities, including in-person classes.

Cases have risen rapidly in Maine and across the country since the system announced its previous policy on July 16. University officials feared the disruption that could be caused by the spread of the delta variant among students and staff and said the change was necessary to preserve public health on campuses and their surrounding communities.

“This policy change is because of delta,” University of Maine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy said Wednesday. “We weren’t thinking about this a month ago.”

More than 10,300 students and university staff members, including 69 percent of full-time employees and about 40 percent of students, have reported that they are vaccinated in the university’s portal. Officials expect that number to greatly increase with this requirement and suspect there are others who are vaccinated but have yet to report it to the university.

Students who are partially vaccinated will be required to be tested for COVID-19 twice a week and to wear a mask inside university buildings until two weeks after receiving the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine or their second shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines.

All students must show evidence to the university that they have received at least one shot of the COVID-19 vaccine by Aug. 20, 10 days before the start of classes, if they want to participate in student activities on campus at all. University officials are currently in discussions with labor organizations to require the same for staff and faculty members.

Students can receive exemptions to the requirement due to religious beliefs or a medical condition that would make them unable to be vaccinated, Demeritt said.

The policy shift came due to the spread of the delta variant of COVID-19 across the country, which has increased hospitalizations from the virus nationwide. General FDA authorization of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine had been expected sometime in the fall. However, experts did not anticipate it to occur before classes began at University of Maine System colleges on Aug. 30.

With vaccine hesitancy particularly high in rural areas, various incentives and marketing campaigns have already begun at the University of Maine at Presque Isle and University of Maine at Fort Kent, the presidents of those colleges said on Wednesday. University of Maine at Presque Isle President Ray Rice said he had seen vaccine numbers rise in recent weeks.

As of July 26, students and staff who verified their vaccination status are no longer required to wear masks inside university buildings.