Maine’s health and education departments have partnered on a plan to aggressively promote vaccinations of school staff and students against COVID-19 ahead of the start of the school year.

The plan, announced Wednesday, includes launching free vaccine clinics at schools that are interested in hosting them, promoting vaccine education to both school staff and parents, and collecting and sharing school vaccination rates beginning Sept. 1.

“Keeping children safe and healthy is critical to their ability to learn, grow and thrive,” Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said in a statement. “By supporting schools in offering vaccination clinics, helping communities understand the benefits of these safe and effective vaccines, and equipping school leaders with information to make the best decisions for their communities, we can limit the spread of COVID-19.”

Wednesday’s announcement came at the same time state officials said Maine will follow recently updated guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on mask wearing. Under that guidance, Maine will recommend that anyone who lives in a county where new virus transmission is high or substantial wear a mask indoors regardless of their vaccination status. As of Wednesday afternoon, only Waldo County fit that definition.

Additionally, Maine officials said they will abide by U.S. CDC recommendations that everyone – teachers, staff, students and visitors – in public K-12 schools should wear a mask whether they have been vaccinated or not and whether they are in a high transmission area or not.

In Maine and elsewhere, only students who are 12 or older are eligible for vaccines, so elementary schools are filled with unvaccinated kids. But that could change in the fall. Pfizer officials said this week that it expects to submit clinical trial data soon that would support an emergency use authorization for its vaccine for children between 5 and 11 by the end of September.

Among those between 12-15 in Maine, 42 percent are fully vaccinated, but the rate ranges widely by county. In Cumberland County, for instance, 61 percent in that age group has been vaccinated. In four rural counties – Piscataquis, Washington, Franklin and Somerset – the rate is below 30 percent.

The hope is that those rates will go up when schools are able to host clinics again. By posting vaccination rates by school or by district, state officials hope to be able to target areas where rates might be lower.

Throughout the last school year, the rate of virus transmission in Maine schools was consistently lower than the overall  rate in the community, a fact officials attributed to strict adherence to guidance on masking and distancing.

“Maine school staff and leaders have risen to every challenge presented by the dynamic pandemic that continues to proliferate among unvaccinated people,” said Pender Makin, commissioner of the Department of Education.

In addition to Wednesday’s announcement, DHHS and DOE said they continue to see interest in their pooled testing program, which helps detect whether the virus is spreading in a classroom or school. So far, 166 schools have signed up for the program.


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