A Ticket to Controversy: Orange County Officials and Residents Debate Merits of Vaccination Pass

April 13, 2021 Updated: April 14, 2021

The Orange County Health Care Agency (OHCA) is looking to develop a secure way for residents to verify their COVID-19 vaccination status, its director said April 13.

The program will provide the fully inoculated with a scannable QR code within the county’s Othena application, which is normally reserved for appointment scheduling. According to the board’s agenda, it is known as a “composite app” and will cost $3.8 million.

The idea of a vaccine passport in Orange County was highly controversial, with more than 200 public speakers showing up to an April 13 board of supervisors meeting to voice their concerns about businesses having a way to easily deny non-vaccinated residents service.

“You can say you’re not mandating, and you can keep repeating the word voluntary, but the fact is this system will enable exclusionary use by others, like the airlines, like large venues, grocery stores, Staples Center for you Lakers fans,” one public commenter said. “They’ll be able to easily exclude and deny services to many citizens, because you’re all going to make it easy for them to do it.”

Another public speaker said: “It is deeply concerning that the Orange County Board of Supervisors is considering a digital vaccine passport program. Regardless of whether it’s voluntary or mandatory, this is government overreach.”

OHCA director Dr. Clayton Chau was the target of much of the controversy at the meeting, where he attempted to clear up what he called misinformation.

“I, as a health officer, cannot mandate the COVID-19 vaccine, because it is not an approved product from the FDA. This is an emergency use authorization only, and people are not required to take the product,” Chau said.  “So, I don’t know where the rumor came from.

“The other piece regarding a controversial issue is around the word ‘passport.’ As a health entity, we are required by law to give people proof that we provide a service to them … which in this case is the vaccination.”

Chau went on to say that the FBI and the Centers for Disease Control recently issued a statement that the white card residents receive after being inoculated has often been sold or fraudulently created, which is why it is no longer considered proof of vaccination.

“So what happens is if an individual comes to us and requires us that we show them proof of vaccination, we’re working on issuing a digital vaccination administration record to folks, but they will have to request it,” he said.

Supervisor Andrew Do said that given that the vaccine is only permitted under emergency use authorization, people have the right to decide whether to take it without consequence.

“Since it is optional and is not required, there’s no way that legitimately, any kind of exclusionary use of such a vaccine can be used, it would be just unfair,” Do said.

“Admittedly, the term passport was probably unartful, it is a quick kind of glance at the issue we thought of as a convenient way to describe it, but I don’t think any of us anticipated that the term would come with the exclusionary functions that maybe was imputed through the state or that the state might have considered, but certainly from our part that was never part of the consideration.”

Chau said the board of supervisors would not be voting on an item to mandate any kind of vaccination passport, and that the county would not be mandating any business—other than what’s required by law—to require proof of vaccination. The county will not require anyone entering a public building or agency to show any proof of vaccination either, he said.

“We have to produce something for Americans when they encounter a situation where there is a required proof of vaccination. And the question has always been, can the government do that? And the answer now is no, but can the private side do it, and the answer is yes,” Chau said. “A business has every right to do whatever they want to do to make their environment safe.”

Supervisor Don Wagner held up his white COVID-19 vaccination card and said it should be enough to prove someone received a vaccine.

“This is a federal form. It is not our problem that the federal government doesn’t have a form, isn’t confident enough in its own documentation, etc. That’s not our problem. Whether they fix it or not is up to them,” he said.

“We’ve got 200 people who want to speak about this, and they are concerned that at some point we are going to say without the digital equivalent of this card or something else, you’re not going to be able to travel in Orange County, you’re not going to be able to come into Orange County, leave Orange County, be able to go to … private businesses … unless you have a passport. That is not what we’re doing. That is not what you’re intending for us. You will resist that if ever somebody proposes it to you, right?” Wagner asked Chau, who agreed.

Supervisor Katrina Foley seemed to be for the idea of the passport, saying that showing proof of vaccinations has been common practice for a long time.

“In the past, if you wanted to go to Vietnam or Africa or India or any a number of countries, you’d have to show proof of certain kinds of vaccinations,” Foley said. “The state is currently looking at allowing concert venues and sporting event venues to increase their capacity if they create some kind of program to show that people are vaccinated, and that’s a business decision by those venues.

“I appreciate the need to have convenience. I’m very concerned about our businesses, about our performing arts centers, about our concert venues, about our sporting event venues, about our theme parks, about our fair, being able to get back operating, and to me, this is a non-issue. This digital record that allows a person to easily prove that they’re vaccinated so that they can go and participate in activities that we love and enjoy here in Orange County, that’s their choice.”

Supervisor Lisa Bartlett told Chau that he needs to make it clear that downloading the passport is completely voluntary.

“From the county perspective and from the health care agency, I think we need to make it crystal clear that with regard to the vaccination records, the digital records that can be obtained by individuals, that this is not a county mandate,” she said. “That’s not government’s role, to mandate that everybody download a digital record. They have to opt into it, and it is completely voluntary.”

Follow Drew on Twitter: @DrewVanVoorhis