UNR COVID: Assessing vax exemptions, fake cards

deadline approaches for students to prove vaccination status

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION/FRANK X. MULLEN: Counterfeit vaccination cards are available on the internet, along with phony negative COVID-19 test result documents.

Some students at the University of Nevada, Reno, who now are required to prove they have been fully vaccinated in order to be able to enroll for the spring semester, have applied for religious exemptions to the mandate.

UNR officials are taking a hard look at those requests and also are on guard for forged vaccination cards, which are easily available for purchase online. Some students under age 21, meanwhile, are discovering that their legitimate, proof-of-vaccination cards, which include their real birthdates, are getting in the way of using their phony ID cards, which list fictitious dates of birth. The fake IDs also are readily available online.

“The birth date, the birth year, does not match the year on my fake ID, versus my (real) vaccination card,” said a female student who asked that her name not be published. She said the discrepancy between the documents is putting a crimp in her weekend activities. “Obviously I could not show (both) to a bouncer without being called out for fraud.”

Even so, she said, she won’t be buying a fake vaccination card to make those birth dates match. She does not support people lying about their vaccination status.

“I think lying about your age is a very simple thing to lie about,” she said. “Everybody does it in college, whereas vaccination status actually does affect people outside of yourself.”

Welcome to the ever more complicated world of college in the midst of a pandemic.

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: Students in the Frandsen Humanities building Sept. 13. UNR requires that masks be worn indoors.

Black market vax cards

UNR students must be fully vaccinated by Nov. 1 in order to enroll on time for spring semester, which begins in January. The Office of Admissions and Records is encouraging students to upload their vaccination documentation by Oct. 20 to ensure the documents are processed in time for enrollment.

Fraudulent driver’s licenses and vaccine cards are sold on the Dark Web.

Fake vaccine cards have been offered for sale on the Dark Web for months, but after President Joe Biden in September announced a policy to require vaccinations for federal employees and other large employers, vendors selling the fake cards and phony negative COVID-19 test documents have proliferated on encrypted instant messaging sites such as Telegram, according to NBC News.

An unscientific survey of some of those sellers Oct. 13 by the Reno News & Review found fake vaccination cards priced at $150 to $250. It’s a federal crime to buy, use or sell fraudulent documents that contain a federal agency’s seal, including the seal of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the vaccination cards. Violators face a fine and up to five years in prison.

Molly Beaupré, UNR’s associate registrar for Records and Registration, said students’ vaccine cards are being verified individually by university staff members. She said “random records” are checked, but no fakes have yet been detected. Any phony documentation cases found will be reviewed by the Office of Student Conduct, she said.

Religious exemptions

Students have the option to seek a religious exemption from the vaccination mandate. If the administration considers the request valid, those students may enroll for the spring term. Those seeking a religious exemption may upload a form entitled “a statement of sincere belief” and also can attach a letter or document in support of their request.

Those forms are being reviewed internally, Beaupré said, and some students’ exemption requests already have been denied. Those students will have to provide full vaccination documentation in order to enroll. That process could pose delays for some students, who would have to make a vaccine appointment, get the first dose, and wait three to four weeks for a  second dose of the vaccine before being able to enroll for spring.

That means some of the classes those students need could be at capacity enrollment before they are able to sign up for them.

Faking religious beliefs

Beaupré was unable to cite the number of students who have so far asked for a religious exemption to the vaccination mandate. There’s also no data concerning UNR students’ attitudes about those exemptions.

Intelligent.com recently asked 1,250 college students of various faiths and political beliefs their thoughts on religious exemptions for vaccination requirements. According to the survey, 61% of college students support religious exemptions, while 39% oppose them. 

Of students who described themselves as “non-religious,” 54% were against the exemption. Of the “religious” students, 32% opposed the exemptions. A majority of students who are against the exemptions reported that they believe public health is more important than religious freedom.

The survey found that when it comes to trying to avoid getting vaccinated at institutions requiring the shots, non-religious students are more likely to claim a religious exemption than students who are religious, by a rate of 17% to 11%.

Overall, just 14% of students surveyed requested a religious exemption and only about a third  of  those students’ requests were approved. If those numbers were applied to UNR’s demographics, that would indicate about 2,940 students seeking exemption, with 980 of those requests being approved. That could leave about 1,960 students still needing the vaccine to enroll, thus postponing their spring enrollment. 

Support for valid exemptions

UNR graduate student Lydia Albrecht, 22, values students’ option to have a religious exemption if they want it. “Individuals have the choice to not be in school, if they really don’t want to get the vaccine,” she said. “Individuals also do have the choice to be religiously exempt… if they are legitimate in their religious beliefs (and feel) that the state is impeding on those, then I don’t think that they should be forced to get the vaccine.” 

Albrecht, who is fully vaccinated, said it’s important for the student population to get the shots. “This is such an unprecedented situation, where mass amounts of people are dying,” she said. “… To go to a campus where you’re not vaccinated, (is) to be risking not only your life, but other people’s lives.”

People with legitimate religious objections should be respected, she said, but not those who are faking beliefs just to avoid the vaccine mandate. “That religious exemption needs to exist for the individuals who identify with a religion that keeps them from being vaccinated,” Albrecht said. “It’s more important that those people have the right to stake their religious beliefs… to not get the vaccine, as opposed to someone manipulating the system to get out of getting vaccinated.”

PHOTO/RACHEL JACKSON: Students on the University of Nevada, Reno campus on Oct. 13.

Determining sincerity

Norris Burkes, 64, a grad student who previously served as a hospital and military chaplain, said he has had a lot of experience interviewing people about their religious beliefs. Burkes said very few requests for religious exemptions turn out to be legitimate.

“I interviewed plenty of people that, you know, for some reason or another, wanted some sort of exemption for work,” Burkes said. “They couldn’t work on Saturdays, OK, you’re a Seventh-Day Adventist. They believe Saturdays are sacred like Jewish people do, so you know, there needs to be some test of sincerity for religious exemptions.”

“I don’t believe this has anything to do with religious freedom, it has to do with somebody finding an excuse to not take the vaccine. I’m not sure that I would hold anything higher than religious freedom, because of who I am, but I don’t think this is a case of religious freedom. This is a case of bullshit.”

— Norris Burkes, UNR grad student and former military and hospital chaplain.

The people with the strongest cases for religious exemption, Burkes said, are those following religions that have always refused vaccines or medical care.

Considering dropping out

Marissa Pollak, 20, a UNR junior and a Southern Baptist Christian who applied for a religious exemption, said she has a sincere religious reason for not wanting the shots. She said she is worried about being approved, however, noting that some NBA players were recently denied religious exemptions from the league’s vaccination mandate.

If that can happen in the NBA, she said, the university also may take a hard line when assessing the requests. If her application is denied, she said, she hopes there is an appeal process.

“I’d probably try to refute it and rebut it, the best I can, and hope that that works,” Pollak said. “But in all honesty, if it comes down to it, I’d probably consider dropping out.”

A right to refuse

She sees education as a right and the vaccine mandate as an infringement on that right. “I seriously considered dropping out when they said that it’d be mandatory to get the vaccine just because, like, I have my reasons for not getting it, and I don’t think I could do online classes,” she said. “(With online classes) I’d be at my own home, not in contact with anybody, and yet I’m still denied my right to learn and continue my education.”

Pollack is a marketing major with career aspirations in the wedding planning industry. If she abandoned her quest for a degree, she said, she would then rely on connections in that industry, which she said are just as important as a degree.

“It’s not like a life or death situation if I just decided to not continue my education,” she said. “I’m not like a nursing major (who has to have a degree to get a job).”

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