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

Some 221 University of Maine System students who have refused to get the COVID-19 vaccine or agree to regular virus tests will receive disenrollment letters next week and be withdrawn from all in-person classes without a refund.

Those 221 students who attend in-person classes missed last Friday’s deadline to confirm their vaccination status or request an exemption from the vaccination requirement, university system spokesperson Dan Demeritt said. Every student who lives on a university campus is now in compliance with the policy, he said. 

The 221 students represent less than 1 percent of the University of Maine System’s 26,111 students, though that figure also includes some students who are fully remote and thus exempt from the vaccine requirement.

The situation at Maine’s universities is an early example of how a vaccination requirement is playing out ahead of an Oct. 29 deadline for health care workers in Maine to be fully vaccinated against the coronavirus or risk losing their jobs. Health care employers, including hospital systems, group homes for people with disabilities and nursing homes, have said they’re experiencing staffing shortages as the vaccination deadline approaches, though the mandate isn’t the only factor they’ve cited. 

University of Maine System students had until Friday, Oct. 15 to register their vaccine status with the system to comply with a requirement announced in the summer. Students who hadn’t shown evidence of vaccination status or requested a religious or medical exemption also became ineligible to enroll in classes for the next semester.

Noting that the measure was never meant to be punitive, Demeritt said students who reach out after being withdrawn and are ready to comply would be able to work with their university to re-enroll.

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. 

With more than 10,000 students submitting confirmation of their vaccination status since late July, Demeritt said it was clear that the policy had worked to create campus environments that were safer and less likely to see coronavirus cases.

“College-age students in our universities are the most vaccinated group of young people in the state,” Demeritt said. 

Younger Mainers are far less likely to be vaccinated than older age groups, a trend that’s generally reflected nationwide. That divide is especially prevalent in some of the more rural sections of the state.

In Franklin County, where the University of Maine at Farmington is located, just 49 percent of those 16-29 have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control. 

Numbers are similarly low (52 percent) for that age group in Washington County, home to the University of Maine at Machias. In Aroostook County, home to the university system’s Presque Isle and Fort Kent campuses, 59 percent of 16- to 29-year-olds have received at least one dose of the vaccine.

It is unclear how many students had withdrawn on their own due to the requirement, Demeritt said, but he noted that enrollment was down about 1 percent overall compared to last year. It’s a number he said were officials were happy with, especially given the uncertainties created by the pandemic as well as the demographic shifts being seen across Maine.