GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — It is possible to get a medical or religious exemption from wearing masks or getting vaccinated against COVID-19, but the questions of who to get it from and who can actually get an exemption are still a bit mysterious to most people.
In Florida, a doctor was removed from patient care for offering fake exemption letters for $50.
In Rhode Island, state health officials are investigating bogus exemption forms that were made to look official.
But the ability to get a medical or religious exemption isn’t up to doctors, or faith leaders for that matter.
“We aren’t the ones who actually exempt anybody; that is between the individual and the organization from whom they’re trying to obtain an exemption,” said Dr. Jeffrey Wu, an internal medicine doctor at faith-based Christian Healthcare Center in Grand Rapids. “We ultimately defer to employers, to schools, to determine if those things qualify.”
The CDC has strict recommendations for who can and cannot obtain a legitimate medical or religious exemption — for example, those who are paralyzed or motor impaired and can’t physically don a mask on their own, or those with “intellectual, developmental, cognitive or psychiatric disability that affects the person’s ability to understand the need to remove a mask if breathing becomes obstructed.”
Likewise, those with sensory overload disorders, autism or breathing issues like asthma or COPD can also seek exemptions. But Dr. Wu said the best he and his colleagues can do is write a letter of confirmation that a person has the ailment or disorder, but not much more. He’s only written one for a patient who was pregnant.
“While we want to promote patients' autonomy — we want to promote individual liberty — we also need to do our job and encourage them to do the best they can,” said Dr. Wu. “And I wouldn’t be doing my job; I wouldn’t be doing what they pay me to do if I weren’t telling them what the evidence and what medical science advocates for which is that they do the best they can to protect themselves.”
Faith leaders are in similar positions. Bishop Gerard Battersby, the auxiliary bishop of the Arch Diocese of Detroit, said similarly to doctors, faith leaders can only provide affirmations of a person’s religious beliefs but can’t offer exemptions themselves. And they have had people ask.
“There was a flurry of that activity about a month ago…that activity has really subsided in a big way,” said Bishop Battersby. “One of the things that the church doesn’t want to get involved in is those who are seeking it and trying to conflate a political objective with a religious objective.”
Schools have been in a unique position in respect to mask and vaccination exemptions, especially specialized learning programs. Because of large numbers of students with cognitive or physical impairments, some schools are granting exemptions in line with the CDC’s guidelines.
At Kent ISD, their deaf and hard-of-hearing students have had to adjust. Even still, despite difficulties reading lips and catching facial cues, Kent ISD says most of their 80 deaf and hard-of-hearing students are wearing masks — only a few have even asked for an exemption.
“It can be challenging when we have mask mandates, but we also recognize it’s important to be healthy and safe,” said Trish Lopucki, supervisor of Kent ISD’s deaf and hard-of-hearing programs. “We want those kids to be here, happy, safe and learning. So we work with families and we haven’t had a problem.”
Some schools have taken the step of allowing exemptions on a laxer basis. Last week, NorthPointe Christian Schools in Grand Rapids announced they would allow parents to write medical exemptions to masking for their own children. A Kansas City-area school district recently did the same. But doctors and medical experts are cautioning people to only consider exemptions if they’re truly needed.
“By and large we encourage everyone to mask up; we encourage everybody to get the vaccine,” said Dr. Wu. “Please do consider the risks of the virus compared to the risks of the vaccine.”