Students walk across the University of Maine in Orono on the first day of classes. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

As COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations increase across Maine, there is one notable outlier: college campuses, many of which are seeing even fewer COVID-19 cases this fall than in previous semesters.

The drop in cases this fall semester has allowed college life to return to relative normalcy. It’s come as the colleges have maintained many of their pandemic protocols, such as mask requirements, and were among the first entities to announce vaccine requirements.

Officials representing more than a dozen colleges and universities attributed their low case numbers to the vaccine mandate combined with other anti-COVID measures. Several said cases would likely be even lower if not for the more transmissible delta variant.

Colleges nationwide have noticed the relative success of vaccine mandates in lowering coronavirus cases, with many experts supporting vaccine mandates as a way to reduce spread and hasten the end of the pandemic.

The fall semester has been a much more typical one for the more than 26,000 students enrolled at the seven universities and law school in the University of Maine System. The universities’ vaccine mandate for students likely encouraged numerous young Mainers, among the demographic groups least likely to be vaccinated, to get inoculated, university system spokesperson Dan Demeritt said.

Students had to be vaccinated or qualify for an exemption by mid-October. The university system later removed 221 students who had refused to get vaccinated or get an exemption.

The number of active cases across the system peaked at 121 in the fall of 2020 (when the COVID-19 vaccine was not available to the public) and 95 in the spring of 2021 (when the vaccine was available to most students for the latter half of the semester but was not required). The peak this semester as the delta variant has spread has been 67, Demeritt noted.

In addition to controlling the virus’ spread, the vaccine requirement and other measures hadn’t led to a significant enrollment drop, he said. In total, the system’s student population is down about 0.5 percent since last year. Enrollment at the flagship Orono campus has increased by 2 percent.

“Our vaccination mandate is working, and it is not adversely impacting enrollment,” Demeritt said.

The number of active cases on the universities’ campuses has dropped since the start of November, even as new cases have risen statewide — especially in less vaccinated rural areas — and the state has set new records for COVID-19 hospitalizations.

At Maine’s seven community colleges, in-person instruction has grown from 30 percent of all courses last semester to 50 percent this semester, system spokesperson Noel Gallagher said.

“Without vaccine protocols for students and employees, Maine’s community colleges would not have been able to offer close-to-normal residential life, larger class sizes, athletics, clubs, in-person student supports and other resources,” she said.

There have been about 68 coronavirus cases this semester among students and faculty across the system, which is about 0.8 percent of its on-campus population, Gallagher said. She said it was difficult to compare that number to last fall, as far more students were learning at home at that time and the system’s dorms were empty.

Husson University in Bangor has seen a reduction in cases among employees and staff this semester compared with previous ones, a phenomenon spokesperson Eric Gordon attributed to health protocols that include the vaccine requirement. Like other universities, Husson has religious and medical exemptions to the vaccine requirement, and about 6.5 percent of the student body were granted them.

The reduction in cases from those protocols has allowed more in-person courses and let the university resume a full athletics schedule, Gordon said.

“Vaccinations and our commitment to masking have definitely improved our COVID-19 experience among students and employees during the current semester,” Gordon said.

The vaccination has also kept cases down at Colby College in Waterville, allowing it to ease some restrictions from last semester, a spokesperson for the college said.

“The college’s multifaceted approach to COVID-19 has allowed us to remain on campus, living and learning together, with limited transmission of the virus,” the spokesperson said.

Cases are around the same as they were last semester, a trend the spokesperson said was likely attributable to the delta variant and increases in travel and other activities in recent months. Colby continues to require all on-campus students, faculty and staff to get tested twice a week regardless of vaccine status and also has an indoor mask requirement.

At the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, there have been relatively few COVID-19 cases this term, which spokesperson Rob Levin attributed to everyone on campus continuing to take the virus seriously, including through masking.

“We’ve had just three confirmed cases of COVID-19 this term, which is remarkable considering the high incidence of COVID transmission here in Hancock County and across the state,” Levin said. “All of these cases were isolated incidents.”