University of Maine men's hockey player Emil Westerlund.  Credit: Courtesy of UMaine Athletics

A University of Maine men’s hockey player has quit the team after refusing to get a COVID-19 vaccine booster.

UMaine hockey winger Emil Westerlund said Thursday he left because the school is requiring its student-athletes to get the COVID-19 booster, in addition to the mandated two vaccination shots, to travel out of state. Westerlund said he received the first two shots and contracted COVID-19 in November. 

“So I figured with the two vaccinations and having gotten COVID, that’s the best protection I could get. I had a natural immunity,” said Westerlund, who won’t get the booster shot. “As an athlete, you should have the right to decide what you’re going to put in your body.”

Westerlund’s claim comes days after head coach Ben Barr said he was leaving due to lingering multiple injuries. Westerlund had knee surgery in the off-season and suffered a concussion this season in addition to contracting COVID-19. He appeared in 14 games without a goal or an assist.

Barr confirmed Thursday that Westerlund’s refusal to get a booster shot led to his departure from the team.

“I wasn’t at liberty to discuss his vaccination status but since he has put it out there, it is true that he wasn’t able to travel with the team due to the school’s vaccination policy,” Barr said.

Westerlund, a 24-year-old graduate student from Sweden, called the situation “frustrating.”

“[The booster policy] is not an NCAA rule,” he said. “The university is forcing athletes to do certain things that college players at other schools don’t have to do. The school doesn’t have the authority to tell me what I can put in my own body.”

Westerlund said he agreed to have the two vaccination shots “because we didn’t know what the disease was. So I felt comfortable taking it at that point.”

UMaine requires student-athletes who are eligible for a booster to receive one to travel out of state with a university sports team or be exempted from the school’s weekly asymptomatic testing, said Dan Demeritt, a spokesperson for the University of Maine System.

That policy went into effect on Feb. 1 using guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Demeritt said. He added that the system understands that people have differing opinions about COVID-19 vaccination.

“While we regret that anyone would miss out on a university experience over concerns with our science-backed safety practices, we respect the right of our students to differ with university policies and to be transparent about their decisions,” Demeritt said.

While Westerlund could have still practiced with the team and played home games, he said Barr was not going to keep him on the team and he agreed with his coach’s decision.

“No athlete would want to do that, not being able to help your team in away games or in the playoffs. That ain’t right to me,” Westerlund said.

A report published by the CDC on Feb. 11 found that vaccine effectiveness in preventing COVID-related visits to emergency departments and urgent care centers was higher in people who had received boosters than in people who had received only the original series of shots.

The last time Westerlund played was in a two-game series at UMass Lowell on Jan. 14-15.

Westerlund tied for fifth on the team in scoring in the abbreviated 2020-21 season with nine points on four goals and five assists in 16 games. He concluded his career with 18 goals and 20 assists for 38 points in 116 games.