Orange County residents battle over digital vaccination passports

A large crowd gathered in Santa Ana on Tuesday as Orange County officials heard arguments on both sides over digital vaccination passports.  

Last month, Orange County officials reassured residents they would not issue any mandates regarding access to public or private places depending on a resident's vaccine status, but said they're working on a program to provide digital proof of inoculation if a vaccine recipient wishes to have it.


A  majority of the OC Board of Supervisors said they favor pausing a plan to issue a digital QR code to show proof of vaccination from any county-run COVID-19 site. 

The supervisors had been considering a proposed system in which anyone who received a vaccine from a county-run site could ask for a digital verification as a backup to the card issued to vaccine recipients if they want one. 

The activists, who bought TV ads encouraging other critics to attend Tuesday's board meeting called on the supervisors to approve an ordinance preventing businesses from excluding non-vaccinated customers.

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Opponents of the county's plan bombarded the supervisors with criticism for hours despite four of the five supervisors indicating they favored putting the proposal on "pause." The supervisors have previously emphasized that they had no interest in developing their own vaccine passport program and officials have even avoided using the term to deflect confusion about the issue.

Many of the critics compared the county's vaccine verification proposal to Nazi Germany and communism.

Andrew Noymer, a UC Irvine professor of population health and disease prevention, agreed with the board's decision to pause the vaccine verification proposal, raising concerns about patient privacy. Noymer noted that the state's contact tracing app has been hacked.

"And contact tracing databases in Philadelphia, which contains sexual orientation data, has been hacked," Noymer said. "I don't have any confidence that what we need right now is another hackable medical record device."

Noymer said officials should spend more time trying to develop a verification system that is more protected against hacking. He added schools will likely want some sort of a system, especially when, as expected, vaccines will soon become available to students 12 to 15 years old.

 "This has nothing to do with throwing a bone to the crazies. I'm not trying to meet them halfway," Noymer said. "We need to vaccinate. They need to shut up about `vaccines are genocide.' But I do think now is not the time to jump into yet another hackable database. Privacy is important, including vaccination status." 

Bartlett said she wanted to put the proposal on hold to focus more on vaccinating the county's residents. "Our county has always been about individual choice and personal freedom and this would be no different," Bartlett said. "But now I think we need to continue our efforts to get people vaccinated. There's so much misinformation out there, but again, it would still be about individual choice and personal freedom and it would be voluntary ... We've always been one for not having governmental mandates."

Board Vice-Chairman Doug Chaffee said the verification system would only cover recipients from county-run sites. "So two-thirds of other vaccinations would not be included anyway,"

Chaffee said. "Until that is all put together it's really not meaningful to do a QR code ... I don't like this discussion because I find it as a fulcrum of disinformation."

Supervisor Katrina Foley lamented that the county was "appeasing a small fraction of our community, a very small fraction of our community ...They're not going to get vaccinated. They've already told us they won't get vaccinated."

Foley also ridiculed concerns about being "tracked," saying opponents "should throw away their cell phones, get off Facebook and Twitter where they're spreading the disinformation campaign because you're getting tracked far more through your iPhone.

"This is about something else," Foley continued. "Many of these individuals, they were at my home over the summer opposing masks."

Board Chairman Andrew Do responded said the county should be careful about devising a system "the state can use ... as a convenient way to curtail people's actions and activities. That is what the concern is about. And now, again, we can take it in any way that we want to all we want, but that is a concern. Let's not minimize it. Let's not downplay it and believe it is not a legitimate concern, because it is."

Supervisor Don Wagner said, "All of this discussion is scaring people away. And we know that because we both got calls from a Hispanic chamber of commerce, not just a small minority of conservative anti-vaxxers."

Do asked staff to alert the queued-up speakers that the board would not be going forward with the vaccine verification system.

"Why are people advocating against it when we said we're not going to do it?" he asked. He emphasized that if the county ever moves forward with a digital vaccine verification system, it would be put on the board's agenda so the public could weigh in before any decision is made.