The University approved 662 vaccine exemptions for students this fall. Megan Ocelnik/Daily. Buy this photo.

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The University of Michigan has approved 662 vaccine exemptions, less than 2% of the Ann Arbor campus’ student population, and denied an additional 95 exemptions, according to University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald. 

In an email to The Michigan Daily, Fitzgerald wrote that each exemption was evaluated on an individual basis. 

“Exemption requests are reviewed by designated U-M staff members from a number of units, including University Health Service, Student Life, Human Resources and Occupational Health Services, as well as representatives from all three campuses and the health system, when appropriate,” Fitzgerald wrote.  

On July 30, University President Mark Schlissel announced that faculty, staff and students across all three University campuses, as well as Michigan Medicine, were required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by the first day of classes. 

Schlissel’s announcement included “limited” religious and medical exemptions subject to University approval. Individuals with exemptions have to participate in mandatory weekly COVID-19 testing.

As of Wednesday, 93% of students have reported their full vaccination sequence. According to Fitzgerald, the remaining 5% of students who have not self-reported a full vaccination nor been given an exemption are either partially vaccinated or in the process of requesting an exemption.

79% of staff and 92% of faculty on the Ann Arbor campus have also reported their full vaccination.

Students who have not reported their vaccination status and have not received an exemption or a deferment had an administrative hold placed on their account starting Aug. 30. 

Fitzgerald wrote the majority of vaccine exemptions granted by the University were religious. In order to receive a religious exemption, students had to prove that getting the vaccine violated their sincerely-held religious view in a written statement and complete the COVID-19 safety module.

Engineering senior Brannon Kincaid said he applied for a religious exemption that has since been approved by the University. Kincaid said he spent time praying and decided now was not the right time to get a vaccine. 

“Basically everything that you do (in Christianity) is to glorify God in a way, and to go to God and pray for most decisions,” Kincaid said. “And basically, for me personally, I had prayed about it, and at that point in time I just decided it wasn’t the right thing for me to do.” 

Kincaid said the process of receiving an exemption was relatively straightforward, though he said there were some confusing aspects of applying for one. Kincaid said after applying on Aug. 4, he didn’t hear anything until Aug. 19, when he learned that his exemption had been approved on the condition that he complete a COVID-19 safety module. 

After he completed the module, Kincaid received his full vaccination exemption on Aug. 31, one day after the start of classes.

Despite the University not requiring him to submit documentation proving his piety, Kincaid said he and many of his peers were concerned that by not submitting documentation, their application wouldn’t be looked at as seriously.

“On the University’s website when you submitted your exemption it said that you did not need to submit documentation, but there were a lot of people who were worried that if you didn’t submit documentation that your exemption wouldn’t be looked at the same,” Kincaid said. “I don’t know the validity behind that, (but) I did submit documentation from a pastor that I had listened to a few of his sermons.” 

A first-year student who spoke with The Daily on the condition of anonymity out of fear of stigmatization and ostracization from religious organizations on campus said despite considering himself very religious, he does not believe people should be able to use their religion to receive a vaccine exemption. In this article, he will be referred to as Jack.

Jack said he is particularly concerned about vaccine exemptions in residence halls, where fully vaccinated students do not have to wear a mask. 

“I am pretty religious myself, but the idea that you should be able to get exempted for that is a little ridiculous to me because I also think there’s no way of really verifying it,” Jack said. “I think the fact that masks (in the residence halls) are on the honor system and like, if you’re not vaccinated, no one’s really asking you, so you don’t have to wear a mask, concerns me.”  

Jack said his apartment building in his hometown implemented a similar policy where residents could receive exemptions from vaccine and masking requirements for religious reasons. According to Jack, shortly after the announcement of the exemptions, the building’s cases spiked and a mask mandate was re-imposed. 

“My apartment building did a really similar thing with vaccines where people could get (religious) exemptions and they did everything based on the honor code in terms of masks in our building,” Jack said. “I think we had 25 cases within the span of a week and then we had to mandate masks again.” 

Jack said he believed the best solution for the problem was for either the University to mandate masks in the residence halls or to only allow for medical exemptions. 

“With a medical exemption, you actually have to prove that you have a medical condition or you’re immunocompromised in some way and that’s why you can’t get (the vaccine), whereas with the religious ones they don’t really (require) proof,” Jack said. “And I just think that there are people with kids at home who are below the age of 12 and can’t get vaccinated, and I think it puts not just campus at risk but also people off-campus in Ann Arbor at risk by having a way for people to get around (getting) the vaccine if they choose to do so.” 

As a senior, Kincaid said that if he had been denied an exemption, he would’ve gotten the vaccine because transferring to another University would’ve likely caused him to have to take a fifth year. 

Kincaid also said that had he been denied, he would’ve seen it as a sign to go get vaccinated.  

“I’m a senior, so I kind of have to go to the University no matter what,” Kincaid said. “I really just prayed about it — my main reason for the exemption was just … I didn’t think it was the right time. But at the same time, I (thought) ‘Well if I get denied, then I guess that’s a sign to go ahead and take it.’” 

Daily Staff Reporter George Weykamp can be reached at gweykamp@umich.edu.