As the delta variant of the coronavirus spreads across the United States, a growing number of colleges and universities are requiring proof of the COVID-19 vaccine for students to attend classes in person. But the mandatory requirement has opened the door for those who oppose receiving the vaccine to mislead the system, according to interviews with students, education officials and law enforcement officials.
Teachers and students at dozens of schools interviewed by The Associated Press say they are concerned about how easy it is to obtain fake vaccination 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 “vaccination cards” sells laminated COVID-19 vaccination cards for $ 25 each.
One user of the encrypted messaging app, Telegram, offers “COVID-19 Vaccine Card Certificates,” for up to $ 200 each. “This is our own way of saving as many people as possible from the poisonous vaccine,” reads the seller’s message, seen by at least 11,000 users of the app.
An increasing number of visits to these sites and others like them seem to come from those who are trying to obtain fake vaccination cards for college.
One Reddit user commented in a thread about counterfeiting COVID-19 vaccination cards, saying, in part, “I need one 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. Sent from China. Does anyone have the link for the vaccine cards?”
According to a tally by The Chronicle of Higher Education, at least 664 colleges and universities now require proof of COVID-19 vaccines. The process to confirm vaccination in many schools can be as simple as uploading a photo of the vaccination card to the student portal.
In Nashville, Vanderbilt University retains a student’s course record until their immunization record is verified, unless they have an approved medical accommodation or religious exemption.
The University of Michigan says it has a system to confirm vaccinations for employees and students. A university spokesperson told the AP that the school has not had a problem so far with students falsifying their COVID-19 vaccination record cards.
But Benjamin Mason Meier, professor of global health policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, questions how institutions can verify those records.
“The United States, unlike most countries that have electronic systems, bases its vaccination on a flimsy paper card,” he said.
Meier tweeted last week that he spoke to several students who were concerned about the accessibility of fraudulent vaccine cards and who knew of a fellow student who had sent one to college.
“Accountability policies need to be in place to ensure that each student operates in the collective interest of the entire campus,” he said.
In a statement to the AP, UNC said the institution conducts periodic document verification and that lying about vaccination status or falsifying documents is a violation of the university’s COVID-19 community standards and may result in disciplinary action. .
“It is important to note that UNC-Chapel Hill has not found any instance in which a student carries a fake vaccination card. Those claims are simply hearsay at this time,” the school said.
But other staff members and university professors have raised concerns about the alleged falsification of vaccine cards. Rebecca Williams, a research associate at UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, said that while she is concerned by these claims, she is not surprised.
“This is why I believe that developing a reliable national digital vaccine passport app is very important for the good of all organizations and businesses that want to require proof of vaccination for employees, students, or business customers,” Williams said. .
The AP spoke with 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 someone to falsify documentation,” said Michael Uhlenkamp, spokesman for the office of the chancellor at California State University. The school system, which is the largest in the country, supervises about 486,000 students each year on 23 campuses.
Dr. Sarah Van Orman, director of health at the University of Southern California and a member of the COVID-19 task force of the American University Health Association, said college campuses are especially challenging environments for controlling the spread of COVID-19 as tens of thousands of students move onto campus from all over the world. But if students falsify their vaccination status, he 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 kind of ability to get good community immunity,” Orman said.
In March, concerns about 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 manufactured vaccine cards. .
Unauthorized use of the seal of an official government agency such as HHS or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is a federal crime that carries a possible fine and a maximum of five years in prison.
In April, a bipartisan coalition of 47 state attorneys general sent a letter to the CEOs of Twitter, Shopify and eBay to remove ads or links selling the fake cards.
Many of the sites have blacklisted keywords related to fake cards, but the places to buy the documents keep popping up on messaging apps, chat forums, and the dark web.
Sellers 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 euros or around $ 473.49.
An ad on the Buy Real Fake Passport website says that sellers can produce fake vaccination cards in the thousands, if not tens of thousands, depending on the lawsuit.
“It’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 signs that things like Lollapalooza and other festivals are getting bogus cards to gain entry, the trend will continue at these colleges.”
In July, the US Department of Justice announced its first federal prosecution for criminal fraud involving a bogus COVID-19 vaccination and vaccination card scheme. Juli A. Mazi, 41, a naturopathic physician in Napa, California, was arrested and charged with one count of wire fraud and one count of false statements related to health care matters.
Court documents allege that he sold fake vaccination cards to customers 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 the so-called Moderna “lot numbers” for a vaccine that she had not in fact administered. For other customers, he provided blank CDC COVID-19 vaccination record cards and told each customer to write that they had administered a Moderna vaccine with a specific lot number.
Requiring vaccinations to attend classes at colleges and universities has become a contentious political issue in some states. Public universities in at least 13 states, including Ohio, Utah, Tennessee, and Florida, cannot legally require COVID-19 vaccines due to state law, but private institutions in those same states can.
Among states that introduce and pass bills that prohibit educational institutions from requiring COVID-19 vaccines, infringement of individual rights or freedoms is often cited as the top concern.
But according to a statement issued by the American College Health Association and other educational organizations, these restrictions impede the ability of universities to operate 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 stopped by our political leaders.”
Some college students have taken to social media platforms like Twitter and TikTok to express outrage that other students possess fraudulent vaccine cards.
Maliha Reza, an electrical engineering student at Pennsylvania State University, said it’s amazing that students pay for fake vaccination cards when they can get the COVID-19 vaccine at no cost.
“I’m angry about it like there’s more anger than I could describe right now,” Reza said. “It’s silly considering that the vaccine is free and accessible across the country.”