SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. (AP) – As the delta variant of the coronavirus spreads in the United States, a growing number of colleges and universities are requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination so that students can take classes in person . But the mandatory requirement has opened the door for those who oppose getting the vaccine to trick the system, according to interviews with students, education officials and law enforcement.
Professors and students at dozens of schools surveyed by the Associated Press say they are concerned about the ease of getting fake immunization cards.
On the Internet, a cottage industry has sprung up to accommodate people who say they will not get vaccinated for personal or religious reasons.
An Instagram account with the username “vaccinationcards” sells laminated COVID-19 vaccination cards for $ 25 each.
A user of the encrypted messaging app, Telegram, is offering “COVID-19 vaccine card certificates” for up to $ 200 apiece. “It’s our own way of saving as many people as possible from the toxic vaccine,” read the seller’s post, viewed by at least 11,000 app users.
An increasing number of inquiries to these and similar sites seem to come from those trying to get bogus vaccination cards for college.
A Reddit user commented on a thread about tampering with COVID-19 vaccination cards, saying, in part, “I need this for college too. I refuse to be a guinea pig.
On Twitter, a user with over 70,000 followers tweeted: “My daughter bought 2 fake IDs online for $ 50 while in college. Shipped from China. Anyone have the link for vaccine cards?
According to a tally from The Chronicle of Higher Education, at least 664 colleges and universities now require proof of COVID-19 inoculations. The process of confirming immunization in many schools can be as simple as uploading a photo of the immunization card to the student portal.
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In Nashville, Vanderbilt University is suspending a student’s course enrollment until their immunization record has been verified, unless they have approved medical accommodation or a religious exemption.
The University of Michigan says it has a system in place to confirm employee and student vaccinations. A spokesperson for the college told the AP that the school has so far had no problems with students tampering with their COVID-19 vaccination records.
But Benjamin Mason Meier, professor of global health policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, wonders how institutions can verify these records.
“The United States, unlike most countries that have electronic systems in place, bases their vaccination on a fragile paper card,” he said.
Meier tweeted last week that he spoke to several students who were concerned about the accessibility of fraudulent vaccination cards and that they knew another student who had submitted one to the university.
“There must be accountability policies in place to ensure that each student is operating in the collective interest of the entire campus,” he said.
In a statement to the PA, the UNC said the institution was performing periodic document checks and that lying about vaccination status or falsifying documents violated the university’s COVID-19 community standards and could result in disciplinary action.
“It is important to note that UNC-Chapel Hill has not found any case of a student uploading a fake vaccination card. These claims are just hearsay at this point, ”the school said.
But other university and faculty staff have expressed concern over the alleged falsification of vaccination cards. Rebecca Williams, research associate at the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention at UNC, said she was concerned about the claims, but not surprised.
“That is why I believe that the development of a reliable national digital vaccination passport application is very important for the good of all organizations and businesses that wish to require proof of vaccination for employees, students or companies”, Williams said.
The AP spoke to several students across the country who did not want to be identified but said they were also aware of attempts to obtain fake cards.
Some school officials recognize that it is impossible to have a foolproof system.
“As with anything that potentially requires certification, there is the potential for an individual to forge documents,” said Michael Uhlenkamp, spokesperson for the chancellor’s office at California State University. The school system, which is the largest in the country, supervises approximately 486,000 students each year on 23 campuses.
Dr Sarah Van Orman, health officer at the University of Southern California and a member of the American College Health Association’s COVID-19 task force, said college campuses are particularly difficult environments to control the spread. of COVID-19 since tens of thousands of students have settled on campus from all over the world. But if students tamper with their immunization status, she said it could have limited impact.
“I think the number of students who would do that would be so small that it wouldn’t affect our type of ability to get good community immunity,” Orman said.
In March, concern over fake COVID-19 vaccination cards prompted the FBI to issue a joint statement with the US Department of Health and Human Services urging people not to buy, create or sell vaccination cards. vaccines manufactured.
Unauthorized use of the seal of an official government agency such as the HHS or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is a federal crime punishable by a fine and up to five years in prison.
In April, a bipartisan coalition of 47 state attorneys general sent a letter to CEOs of Twitter, Shopify and eBay to remove ads or links selling the fake cards.
Many sites have blacklisted keywords related to fake cards, but the places to buy the documents are still showing up on messaging apps, discussion boards, and the dark web.
Vendors on websites such as Counterfeit Center, Jimmy Black Market, and Buy Express Documents list COVID-19 vaccine cards, certificates, and passports for sale, some costing $ 400 or around $ 473.49.
An advertisement on the Buy Real Fake Passport website indicates that sellers can produce fake vaccination cards in the thousands, or even tens of thousands, depending on demand.
“He’s hiding under our noses. If you want, you can find out, ”said Saoud Khalifah, founder and CEO of Fakespot scam detection software. “If we see any signs where things like Lollapalooza and other festivals are getting bogus cards to enter, the trend is just going to continue at these universities.”
In July, the US Department of Justice announced its first federal criminal fraud prosecution involving a bogus COVID-19 vaccination and vaccination program. Juli A. Mazi, 41, a naturopathic doctor in Napa, Calif., Has been arrested and charged with one count of wire fraud and one count of misrepresentation related to health care matters.
Court documents allege she sold fake vaccination cards to clients who appeared to show they had received Moderna vaccines. In some cases, the documents show that Mazi herself filled out the cards, wrote her own name and claimed Moderna “lot numbers” for a vaccine that she had not actually administered. For other clients, she provided blank CDC COVID-19 immunization cards and told each client to write down that she had administered a Moderna vaccine with a specified lot number.
Requiring vaccinations to attend college and university classes has become a controversial political issue in some states. Public colleges in at least 13 states, including Ohio, Utah, Tennessee, and Florida, cannot legally require COVID-19 vaccination due to state law, but institutions deprived of those same states can.
Among states introducing and passing bills prohibiting educational institutions from mandating COVID-19 vaccines, violation of individual rights or freedoms is often cited as the main concern.
But according to a statement released by the American College Health Association and other educational organizations, these restrictions hamper the ability of universities to function fully and safely.
“The science of good public health has been lost in some of the decisions that have been made in some places,” Orman said. “It has not always been retained by our political leaders. ”
Some students have taken to social media platforms like Twitter and TikTok to express their outrage at other students with fraudulent vaccination cards.
Maliha Reza, an electrical engineering student at Pennsylvania State University, said it was mind-boggling that students were paying for fake vaccination cards when they could get the COVID-19 vaccine for free.
“I’m angry about it like there’s more anger than I can describe right now,” Reza said. “It’s stupid considering that the vaccine is free and available across the country.”
Roselyn Romero is an intern with the Associated Press Global Investigative Team. The internship is funded by the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting.