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Data Breach Exposes Vaccine Exemption Requests at CSU Chico

An Excel document detailing student requests for religious exemptions for the COVID-19 vaccine at California State University, Chico was posted anonymously on a message board. Roughly half had been approved.

(TNS) — Personal information from California State University, Chico, students who requested a religious exemption from the COVID vaccine has been posted online after an apparent data breach.

The requests from about 130 students were dumped on an anonymous Internet message board, documenting approved and denied requests from CSU Chico students between June 7 and Aug. 10.

A commenter on the site linked to an Excel spreadsheet with detailed explanations from students who had asked to be exempted from receiving the vaccine in order to attend the college. Student names and phone numbers were included in many of the entries.

The original post on the message board provided tips on how to file a religious exemption to a COVID-19 vaccine mandate. "State purely religious reasons only," the anonymous tip read. "Do not mention anything else."

The CSU system, which has 23 campuses across the state, requires its 56,000 faculty and staff and nearly 500,000 students on campus to be vaccinated against COVID-19. All certifications must be completed by the end of September. The CSU policy allows students and employees to seek medical and religious exemptions.

The Excel document, authored by the Director of Labor Relations and Compliance Dylan Saake, shows that roughly half of the requests in the leaked document were approved. The administration requested more information from about 20 students. Many of the denied requests were resubmitted for another chance at approval.

Students who asked for a religious exemption included several NCAA athletes, incoming students, and residents of university dorms. Students who stated they believed in healing through prayer were approved for exemption, many referred to their bodies as a temple.

"My religious beliefs follow natural healing through God's divine power and faith healing," read one NCAA athlete's exemption request that was approved. "My beliefs question the necessity of modern medicine including vaccinations."

Most of the exemption requests were filed by students citing their Christian beliefs — some of them quoting Biblical scripture. Another student who was approved called the vaccine "unclean" and analogous to what non-kosher food is to Orthodox Jews.

"No one requires anyone in the United States to consume a substance contrary (sic) to their faith," read the approved request.

The spreadsheet shows personal information on a small fraction of the 17,000 students who attend CSU Chico — just students who happened to include their own names and numbers in the text of their explanation to the university. The Bee is not naming the message board where the data breach was posted.

"Students' medical and religious exemption requests are protected information," read a statement from Andrew Staples, CSU Chico's public relations manager. "We are aware of the documents posted online and circulated among the media. We are investigating this incident, while also taking a number of proactive steps to protect students' confidential information."

Students reference abortion, DNA/RNA 'altering'

Cole Gemmell, a freshman at CSU Chico from Ripon, filed two requests. His first one in June was denied. His second request in July, which cited more of his personal Christian beliefs, was approved. "My sincere religious beliefs and reading of the Scripture would make it a sin for me to take the vaccine," his approved request read.

The Sacramento Bee reached out to Gemmell, who agreed to be quoted for this article. He confirmed details about his exemption request that were contained in the Excel spreadsheet from CSU Chico.

"This is an invasion of my privacy," Gemmell said of the breach. "They are letting people know my choices and what I want to do. It singles me out."

Students who said they were Mormon, Catholic and Serbian Orthodox were approved for an exemption. Many who stated the vaccine had fetal tissue and "abortion-derived cells" were denied.

"I am not an 'anti-vaccer' per se (sic), I won't get discourage anyone from getting it," read one denied request. "I just believe that a vaccine that is DNA/RNA altering shouldn't be taken when it was rushed in the first place. I do hope you consider me for university housing still, I am not from the Chico State area, and I would like to have that sense of independence when moving out f your parents house."

On Aug. 23, in response to the FDA's full approval of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine, CSU Chancellor Joseph I. Castro applauded the decision and urged everyone to get the vaccine.

"Since vaccines became available in December 2020, their use has allowed us to begin to return to many of the activities we had missed over the past 18 months, including seeing and engaging with family and friends," he said in a press release. "To win our nation's fight against the pandemic once and for all, each of us has a role to play and it is imperative that we all do our part."

Three CSU Chico students who had recovered from COVID-19 sued the university, stating that the requirement that they receive the vaccine before returning to class places them at risk of dying.

The suit claimed that individuals who have recovered from COVID "are at substantial risk of serious illness, including death," if given the vaccines, which the lawsuit contends are not safe and names federal officials, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, as defendants.

The students dropped their lawsuit earlier this month.

©2021 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.