UMaine men’s hockey player leaves team over university’s strict COVID-19 policies

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Emil Westerlund recently left the University of Maine’s (UMaine) men’s ice hockey team because he did not want to receive a COVID-19 booster and couldn’t travel with the team without one.

Westerlund previously received two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine before contracting the virus in November 2021.

“So I figured with the two vaccinations and having gotten COVID, that’s the best protection I could get. I had a natural immunity,” Westerlund told Larry Mahoney of the Bangor Daily News.

Without a booster shot, Westerlund was unable to travel out of state with the team. According to Westerlund, the requirement that players receive a booster shot to travel out of state is a university policy.

“We as a team were told approximately two weeks prior to February 1 that a Covid-19 booster shot will be mandatory for any school activity outside our campus which pertains to all away games and playoffs, Westerlund said. In conversations with my coach, I was told that if I wouldn’t be able to play away games, I would be removed from the team. I tried to work out an alternative with the athletic director who replied that he had already ‘pointed out that this rule disproportionately impacts athletes at the seven campuses in the University of Maine System, but it is also clear that [the school] was not willing to discuss changes or options.”

The University of Maine System’s COVID-19 guidance for travel out of the state of Maine, which includes travel for “University athletic purposes,” requires travelers to be up-to-date with COVID-19 vaccinations and to have submitted verification to the university. 

The university uses the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) definition of fully vaccinated and up to date, which includes a booster shot. Individuals who have not submitted verification of their vaccination status “must test prior to and promptly upon the conclusion of the University travel.” This policy went into effect on February 1.

University travel within the state of Maine requires following the U.S. CDC guidance and “Maine civil authority COVID-19 guidance regarding the particular travel in which [travelers] are engaging.”

As of February 1, the university’s policies also exempt fully vaccinated individuals who have also received a booster shot from weekly testing requirements, so long as they are asymptomatic. Individuals who have received a positive COVID-19 test are exempt from weekly testing for 90 days post infection.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) does not require players to receive a booster shot to travel out of state.

The NCAA updated its COVID-19 policies for winter sports on January 14. It recognizes three categories of vaccination status: unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated, fully vaccinated and eligible for a booster, and fully vaccinated and up-to-date with a booster.

The NCAA policy considers student athletes who have been infected within the past 90 days to be fully vaccinated. UMaine’s vaccine requirements for students also considers this. 

The NCAA recommends surveillance testing for players who are unvaccinated or who are not fully vaccinated. For players who are fully vaccinated and up-to-date with a booster shot, testing is recommended “only for symptomatic individuals or when a local risk assessment of close contacts determines such testing may be beneficial.”

During weeks with competition, the NCAA recommends athletes who are unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated be tested in the days leading up to their event. Fully vaccinated athletes, or athletes who have had COVID-19 within the past 90 days, do not need to be tested unless they are symptomatic or have been in close contact with someone who has.

The NCAA’s recommendations for team travel are the same regardless of an athlete’s vaccination status. The policy recommends all players wear masks. Players who have tested positive for COVID-19 and who have been in isolation for five days can be considered for travel on days six through 10 of their quarantine period if they test negative. Quarantined players who are fully vaccinated or have been infected in the past 90 days can travel with a mask.

The NCAA’s policy also notes that decision-making on COVID-19 policies should be guided by community-level immunity status and transmission, state law, and local public health authorities.

Photo: Kithira, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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