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Many Bowdoin students left behind by age-based vaccine rollout

March 12, 2021

Despite Maine’s relatively efficient rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine—the state is currently ranked tenth nationally in percentage of the population that has been fully vaccinated—the state’s transition to an age-based distribution plan has placed many Bowdoin students at the end of the line, resulting in a sense of uncertainty, disappointment and a scramble to find alternate solutions.

At least 37 states are prioritizing individuals with underlying health conditions for vaccination. Other states that have recently adopted an age-based plan, including Connecticut and Rhode Island, still have provisions allowing those with certain health conditions to advance to an earlier spot in the vaccine line.

Maine, however, is currently projecting that state residents in their 20s and below—regardless of underlying health conditions—can expect to receive a vaccine in July, a full two months later than the federal prediction for when enough doses will become available to vaccinate every American adult.

Matsu Hikida ’22 had initially been included in Phase 1B of Maine’s vaccine rollout, meaning he would have been eligible for a vaccine in February. Hikida believes that the age-based system unfairly disadvantages younger individuals who are immunocompromised or who work in settings, such as grocery stores, where they are more likely to be exposed to the virus.

“I think that we should be prioritizing essential workers and immunocompromised folks,” Hikida said in a phone interview with the Orient. “They deserve to go first. They’ve had a hard time, and I think it’s absolutely ridiculous that we’re not prioritizing our essential workers after praising them for so long.”

Philip Bonanno ’23 also expressed his frustration with state policies that initially aimed to protect vulnerable populations but have since changed direction.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, all we heard was that immunocompromised and older citizens were the most at-risk and that we should stay inside and take all these precautions,” Bonanno said in a phone interview with the Orient. “And now [some] states are adopting guidelines and vaccine distribution plans that don’t prioritize [them].”

While it is true that many college students are at lower risk of serious illness if infected, Rory Kliewer ’24 pushed back on the assumption that college students are not impacted by the virus.

“If I get sick, chances are I’m more likely to be okay,” Kliewer said in a phone interview with the Orient. “But that’s not true for everybody, and I think one of the most frustrating things about all of this has been speaking with other Bowdoin students about Maine’s policies and hearing them say, ‘oh, well, that doesn’t affect us’ or ‘well, we’re at Bowdoin, and so we’re fine.’ And [with] this idea that Bowdoin is somehow immune to the pandemic and Bowdoin students won’t be affected by this … there’s absolutely no thought for ‘well, not all Bowdoin students are in perfect health.’”

Director of Health Services Dr. Jeffrey Maher said in a Microsoft Teams interview with the Orient that the College had initially planned to facilitate access to vaccines for immunocompromised students.

“Initially, we thought that the vaccine would roll out according to risk factors,” Maher said. “We were prepared to contact students who had met those higher risk factor criteria and try to obtain a ride or get [them] on the list for a vaccine locally.”

However, now that these students do not qualify in Maine, Health Services’ role has pivoted to include helping students get vaccinated in other states where they hold residency, a process simplified by the recent loosening of travel restrictions in the Northeast.

Hikida has coordinated with Health Services and he plans to travel to Vermont this month to get his first vaccine dose.

“I’m lucky enough to have a friend here who could drive me,” Hikida said. “I’m lucky enough to have a residency and to feel confident telling my professors that I would like to take those two days off classes. Although I’m trying to schedule one [of the two] appointments over spring break because I would love not to miss classes to get vaccinated.”

Bonanno traveled to his home state of New York last week to receive his first vaccine dose. He plans to stay in Maine for the summer, and he did not want to risk waiting for a vaccine.

“The way Bowdoin’s campus is at the moment, [it] didn’t feel like it was safe for me to remain unvaccinated,” Bonanno said. “But I know that’s not an option for a lot of people to go to their home state.”

Kliewer would be eligible to receive a vaccine in her home state of Minnesota, but because she is living on campus, she is now anticipating having to wait until the summer—circumstances shared by other students whose permanent residence is far from campus.

“Because of my housing situation … if I were back home, I would be eligible to get vaccinated right now, as would many of my friends if they were able to return home,” Kliewer said. “So the fact that that’s not available to us here, when we’re all living together and clearly not going to be perfectly following restrictions, seems kind of ridiculous to me.”

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