College campuses in Maine have managed to keep COVID-19 at bay and are reporting low or no new cases even as the state is experiencing the most cases, hospitalizations and public school outbreaks since the start of the pandemic.

The state reported its highest single-day increase of the pandemic Thursday with 925 new cases, but the University of Maine System had just 51 known active cases among more than 30,000 students and staff members. The system now has a positive test rate of 1.5 percent, while the positivity rate statewide is 4.5 percent.

Some private colleges are reporting fewer than 10 active cases on campus, and one college – Saint Joseph’s in Standish – has not had an active case for about a month.

Assuming current trends continue, the stark contrast between college campuses and the rest of the state offers evidence that even the delta variant can be contained. Schools say a combination of vaccine mandates, testing and mask requirements are the answer.

“We are feeling really good and lucky,” said Oliver Griswold, chief brand and marketing officer for Saint Joseph’s. “What seems to have worked is near universal vaccination for the entire community: residential students, commuter students, faculty and staff, combined with our public indoor mask mandate.”

Colleges and universities were among the first entities to mandate vaccines, and while officials said there has been some pushback, the overall impact has allowed students to have a somewhat normal experience this fall.

“Every single day we’re watching these numbers really carefully and using the science to guide us,” said Joan Ferrini-Mundy, president of the University of Maine Orono and chair of the University of Maine System Science Advisory Board, which has been guiding decisions on COVID-19.

The system is requiring vaccinations for all in-person students by Oct. 15 and has implemented a vaccinate-or-test policy for employees. In addition, the system recently extended universal masking indoors through October and plans to continue with testing, both for those who remain unvaccinated after Oct. 15 because of exemptions and for any members of the university community who may become symptomatic.

“We’re wanting to be sure we do all we can do to keep everyone safe, so our discussions are more around, ‘Do we need to add anything? What do the numbers look like?'” Ferrini-Mundy said. “Everyday we look at these numbers, but at this point there hasn’t been a discussion about rolling back in any way.”

University of Southern Maine junior Robert Faucher talks about the low COVID-19 case counts at the Gorham campus on Friday. He said, “I think we take it especially seriously because everyone is in such close proximity.” Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

‘WE WANT TO GET BACK TO NORMAL’

On the Gorham campus of the University of Southern Maine on Friday, students appeared to be adhering strictly to COVID protocols, with some even wearing their masks outdoors.

“We want to get back to normal and I know there were a lot of restrictions for on-campus people if they weren’t vaccinated,” said Amelia Petrucci, a junior who said students are motivated to get vaccinated and adhere to protocols so they can remain on campus.

“You want to be part of the community, you know?” Petrucci said. “If I’m being honest, my vaccine was not my top priority. But before I came here I was like, ‘OK, I have to get vaccinated. I’ll follow anything so I can be here and try and be normal.’ I feel like that’s what most kids are feeling right now.”

Wensday Morse, a freshman, said the protocols on campus appear to be working. “I haven’t really heard of any,” she said when asked about COVID cases.

“I think it’s pretty normal,” Morse said. “Everyone is kind of used to this already. We’re just going about our business.”

Most colleges saw some number of COVID cases when students first returned to campus about a month ago, including Bowdoin College, where more than 40 cases were reported during the first two weeks of the semester. Bowdoin enrolls about 1,800 students and for the first time since the start of the pandemic welcomed all students back in-person this fall.

As the college has settled into the semester, the number of cases has subsided. In total there have been 45 student cases and four cases among employees, including three active employee cases, all of which were “breakthrough” cases among vaccinated people. No students have been hospitalized or required significant medical support.

Mike Ranen, associate dean of student affairs and COVID-19 resource coordinator at Bowdoin, said the initial numbers were due to some students contracting the virus on the day they arrived or shortly after, but that testing, contact tracing, vaccines and masking since then have kept cases low.

‘WE ARE TREADING CAUTIOUSLY’

“We are treading cautiously because we know we could see more cases, but we’re trying to give students as normal an experience as possible knowing health and safety measures still need to be taken,” Ranen said.

Other campuses are also crediting high vaccination rates, indoor masking and testing for low case numbers. At the University of New England, there are four active COVID cases — the most the campus has had at any point of the semester. UNE has an on-campus population of about 3,900 students.

“We’re averaging a few (cases) a week, and we absolutely believe the vaccine mandate has been the most effective tool in preventing cases,” Sarah Delage, a UNE spokeswoman, said in an email. The university has a 100 percent compliance rate among students and employees with its vaccine mandate.

At Saint Joseph’s, there have been no active cases following a handful that were caught during return-to-campus testing one month ago, Griswold said. The college has a vaccination rate of just over 99 percent and it also plans to roll out a requirement for booster shots as they become available and recommended for certain groups. Saint Joseph’s enrolls about 1,000 on-campus students.

“I think everybody is recognizing vaccines may not have been the silver bullet everyone imagined they would be at one time, but when you have vaccinated an entire community and then you do common sense things like masks, you just realize such gains in the public health of the community,” Griswold said. “I’m not sure we even realized how effective those two measures would be.”

MOST STUDENTS, STAFF COMPLY

While the complete impact of vaccine mandates on college campuses is not yet clear, some officials said they have lost only a few students or staff because of them. At UNE for example, Delage said the university is aware of just three employees who left because of the mandate and she is not aware of losing any students because of the mandate.

The University of Maine System is continuing to work to bring students into compliance with its vaccine requirement by Oct. 15. As of Thursday, 86 percent of the system’s in-person population of staff and students had verified their status as vaccinated. On Friday there were 877 students who still had yet to upload any vaccination information or request a qualifying exemption in order to avoid being withdrawn from their courses by Oct. 31 without a refund.

The system is using targeted text messaging, outreach phone calls and alerts on university portals to encourage students to fulfill the requirement. Holds already have been placed on hundreds of student accounts, preventing registration for new courses until those students come into compliance.

At USM on Friday, most students said they have been happy to follow the requirements, though there is still some frustration and caution around COVID on campus.

“I think we take it especially seriously because everyone is in such close proximity,” said Robert Faucher, a junior. “The only way we can be on campus and not have to be off campus all the time like we were last year is because we take it so seriously.”

As a theater student, Faucher said it is still difficult to perform with masks on. He said he’s happy to see his peers and teachers taking the virus seriously, but he’s also looking forward to the end of COVID protocols.

“We don’t know when it will be safe to just be college students again and live normally and interact with each other without being terrified somebody might have COVID and be contagious and be spreading it,” Faucher said. “It’s a mixed bag. It’s an ever-present conversation for everyone I know.”


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