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COVID swab test quotes illustration
Illustration by Philip Nenna /KPBS, photo by Associated Press
Illustrations of the San Diego Police Department COVID-19 tests exemption requests is overlaid on an undated photo of a man conducting a test.

Some San Diego police claim a COVID swab test violates their religion

Some of the San Diego police officers, who obtained religious exemptions from taking a COVID-19 vaccine, also claim their religion forbids them from doing something else: putting a cotton swab in their nose to take a COVID-19 test.

About 10% of police staff, who were exempted on religious grounds, insist their Christian beliefs also instruct them not to use the swabs because they contain ethylene oxide. The chemical is a known carcinogen, but is not actually present on the swabs — it’s used as a gas to sterilize them.

“My beliefs stand for keeping my body clean and free from such unnecessary drugs and chemicals into my body,” one officer wrote on a religious exemption form filed with the city.


The phrase “I trust in God's perfect design of my body” was used 19 times by officers seeking the religious exemption, according to records reviewed by KPBS.

And four officers repeated verbatim that, “Because of my deeply held Christian beliefs, I trust in God’s perfect design of my body, and that my body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. The Covid-19 vaccine and the nasal swab test with ethylene-oxide are an unneeded introduction of drugs/chemicals into my body.”

A previous KPBS investigation found officers repeatedly used identical answers on their religious exemption forms, and those answers were often copied from form letters on the internet.

The city of San Diego approved the vast majority of requests to skip the COVID vaccine for religious reasons, but with the stipulation that those employees then submit to regular testing. The city’s Human Resources Department is working to find a resolution with employees who then also refuse COVID tests on religious grounds. Meanwhile, the unvaccinated employees are not taking tests and remain on the job.


Medical and religious experts say the employees’ claims are groundless.

“I can't really understand the idea that you cannot be tested because the swabs that are being used are going to cause you cancer,” said Dr. David Pride, an infectious disease specialist at UC San Diego. “Realistically, there just is no evidence indicating that that would occur.”

Pride said ethylene oxide is used to sterilize a number of medical devices, that it’s used in a gaseous form so it doesn’t stay on the swabs when they go in the nose, and that swabs are monitored to ensure no ethylene oxide is present on them. In fact, any police officer who’s gotten an influenza test probably used a swab sterilized with ethylene oxide, he said.

“The use of ethylene oxide is not new, it's something that's been going on for many years,” he said. “So if these were causing cancer in people, we would absolutely know about it now.”

William Sawyer, a forensic toxicologist, agreed, and added that because the swabs are stored in a breathable paper package, all ethylene oxide gas would have dispersed long before it reached an officer’s nose.

“It's just not conceivable that the swab would have live ethylene oxide on it at the time of use,” he said. “It's not as if this was dipped into ethylene oxide.”

Some police staff wrote that the Bible told them specifically not to put a COVID-19 test swab in their nose — citing passages from 1 Corinthians.

“As I read the Bible, it directs Christians to abstain from contaminating their body with substances that may be threatening to their bodily health. In so doing, I am to avoid introducing unnecessary drugs and chemicals of all kinds into my body, such as the Covid-19 vaccine and nasal swabs containing ethylene oxide,” an officer wrote. “1 Corinthians 3:16-17 states, ‘Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in your midst? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy that person; for God's temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.’ In addition, 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 states, ‘Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore, honor God with your bodies.’”

But Kara Lyons-Pardue, a New Testament professor at Point Loma Nazarene University, said applying 1 Corinthians to COVID-19 tests “strains credulity.”

She said the Apostle Paul wrote 1 Corinthians as a letter to a group of people, and when he said “your bodies are temples,” he was referring to sexual immorality in the group as a whole, not people ingesting chemicals.

Many officers refusing COVID-19 tests compared their stance to keeping kosher.

“Using the nasal swab test with ethylene-oxide would constitute an unneeded introduction of drugs / chemicals into my body. My belief in this regard is similar to the objection others have to eating ‘unclean food,’” some officers wrote. “For example, orthodox Jews do not eat non-kosher foods, and no one requires anyone in the United States to consume a substance contrary to their faith.”

Some San Diego police claim a COVID-19 swab test violates their religion

Lyons-Pardue said equating nasal swabs to “unclean food” is also not Biblically sound.

“This one seems just a really difficult mismatch for what Paul is even addressing,” she said. “And the ways that Christians have applied kosher laws in a symbolic way to other aspects of life, it just simply doesn't fit.”

As a Christian herself, Lyons-Pardue said instead of searching for very specific Bible passages and attempting to equate them to modern questions like COVID-19 vaccines and tests, she considers the larger messages of the Bible.

“It strikes me that there's a great irony in using the Scripture to seek to preserve even the slightest and really speculative possibility of minor harm to one's person when so much of the New Testament is focused and really fixated on a testimony to a savior who was willing to undertake death and then told Christians that they would need to take up their cross,” she said. “Generations of believers in Christian history and many globally today find instead in Scripture really the resources, the inspiration and encouragement to take on really dramatic and dangerous risks for the sake of their faith.”

Instead, she sees a Biblical argument for getting the COVID-19 vaccine and testing, to avoid spreading a virus to others.

“So to draw out from Scripture something quite the opposite, something that seeks to preserve in a very safe way the health of others, and also to give timely medical information to the person being tested, to use Scripture to avoid that just seems so wildly out of step with the way that Scripture has traditionally been used in Christian circles,” Lyons-Pardue said.

“So to draw out from Scripture something quite the opposite, something that seeks to preserve in a very safe way the health of others, and also to give timely medical information to the person being tested, to use Scripture to avoid that just seems so wildly out of step with the way that Scripture has traditionally been used in Christian circles.”
Kara Lyons-Pardue, a New Testament professor at Point Loma Nazarene University

The city has approved almost all of the COVID-19 vaccine exemption requests submitted by employees, the bulk of which came from the San Diego Police Department. KPBS requested copies of all of the exemption requests and is receiving those records on a rolling basis. The 361 reviewed for this story all came from the SDPD, and of those, 35 also objected to COVID-19 nasal swab tests.

Most of those objections came from sworn officers represented by the San Diego Police Officers Association. The union’s president did not respond to requests for comment. Three objections were made by police dispatchers, who are represented by the Municipal Employees Association. President Michael Zucchet declined to comment.

If employees continue to refuse to test, they will be subject to discipline and could receive advance notice of termination, said Julie Perez-Rasco, said the director of the city's Human Resources Department. However, they remain on the job while that process is sorted out.

A spokeswoman for Mayor Todd Gloria declined to comment on the police officers' assertions and refusal to take COVID-19 swab tests. A spokesman for the San Diego Police Department also declined to comment.

Allowing unvaccinated sworn officers, who also refuse to undergo COVID-19 testing, on the streets is concerning to Rebecca Fielding-Miller, an epidemiologist at UC San Diego.

“For many, many people, it's not voluntary to interact with the police,” she said. “If a police officer wants to interact with you, you cannot walk away. And so if a police officer is not vaccinated, is declining testing, and is not masked, that could be a really dangerous situation for people.”

Fielding-Miller said while the COVID-19 vaccine’s ability to prevent infection has waned, it is still 60% effective at preventing infection.

“That's still 60% fewer infections out walking around, starting transmission chains,” she said. “I think that we see this argument sometimes, ‘oh, the vaccine can keep you out of the hospital and it's great, but it's not serving a public health measure anymore.’ And I think that is an oversimplification. Removing 60% of the transmission chains is a huge public health effect and definitely one that we want to continue to have.”

Fielding-Miller said the argument against ethylene oxide swabs would then have to be logically extended to introducing any foreign agent into the body, including blood transfusions or stitches.

“I'm going to go out on a limb and say that that might not be a theologically genuine take,” she said.

Pride at UC San Diego suggested there might be another reason some San Diego police officers are refusing COVID-19 swab tests.

“Who wants to get a swab stuck in their nose every week to be tested?” he asked. “But I think they're kind of barking up the wrong tree with the idea that they're going to get cancer from just getting these nasal swabs.”

Some San Diego police claim a COVID swab test violates their religion

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