I remember walking through Penobscot Hall at the University of Maine on March 11, 2020, and seeing dorms propped open and students sitting together in tears. We had just learned we would not be returning to campus after spring break.

With the loss of our traditional classrooms, sports, activities, and campus life, our world seemed to be crumbling around us. 

Remembering this feeling, I know there is nothing I wouldn’t do to prevent that from happening again. The University of Maine System should mandate the vaccine for students and employees to protect our health and our university experience.

Vaccines are widely and freely available, but college students are among the least-vaccinated adult population. Estimates suggest only 57.5% of college students will be vaccinated before the fall — significantly less than the 78.4% of older adults. These lower vaccination rates among college students, combined with the surge of the Delta variant in Maine, pose an immediate threat to our safe return. They could even threaten a repeat of spring 2020, when colleges and universities were forced to shut down and transition to remote learning.

Many large state schools, such as in California, have mandated the vaccine to ensure that their campuses stay open. Federal courts have upheld these university mandates against challenges. Husson University and other Maine schools are mandating the vaccine to protect their communities — the UMS must do the same.

A vaccine mandate for the University of Maine System will also protect those who cannot be vaccinated like children under 12. Many employees and students will have contact with unvaccinated people and could transmit the virus to them. 

In Mississippi, the delta variant and low vaccination rates have led to a surge in pediatric patients in intensive care units. In Georgia, the tragic death of 5-year-old Wyatt Gibson was a reminder that COVID can infect and even kill young children. Even if they survive infection, estimates suggest as many as 30% of infected children will develop lasting symptoms, or “long COVID.” As Dr. Peter Hotez at Baylor College of Medicine says, failing to vaccinate is “condemning a whole generation of adolescents to neurologic injury totally unnecessarily.”

With these risks, it is essential that everyone takes responsibility for their communities and gets vaccinated. Maine has had an amazing COVID response so far, which has kept infections low and vaccines high. Unfortunately, Chancellor Malloy’s decision to not mandate the vaccine until it is FDA approved threatens that success. UMS should join the nearly 600 colleges across the country, many in Maine, who are mandating the vaccine in the Fall and enforce a mask mandate until vaccination rates are high enough to prevent outbreaks.

My peers and I want to be able to cheer in a crowded Alfond Arena, learn from our instructors in person, and spend long days in the library and research labs without wearing a mask. Without a vaccine mandate we are putting our college experience and our communities at risk. We must avoid another disruptive, mid-semester shift to looking at squares on a laptop. Although students and employees should voluntarily vaccinate, the University of Maine System must institute a vaccine mandate to ensure we can all be safe and healthy.

Lara Chern is a junior mechanical engineering major in the Honors College at the University of Maine. These are her views and do not necessarily express those of the University of Maine System or the University of Maine

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