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After hundreds criticize nonexistent ‘vaccine passports,’ O.C. opts to shelve digital vaccine record

A woman receives a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
A woman receives a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

Orange County won’t for the time being offer a digital vaccination record to residents after hundreds of people spoke out against nonexistent “vaccine passports” at a county Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday.

At least 600 people held a rally outside the meeting and took to the podium to urge the board not to allow a COVID-19 vaccine passport in the county, even though officials have repeatedly said participation in the program would not be a requirement.

In response to the public outcry, the board ended up voting 4-1 to “pause” a plan to offer a digital vaccination record to residents who request it. Supervisor Katrina Foley cast the only dissenting vote.

Much of the movement against the record seems to stem from confusion around the county’s announcement in early April that it would be starting a vaccine “passport” program, prompting immediate uproar from some residents. The announcement came amid a national conversation over potential government-issued vaccine passports, which the state and federal government aren’t requiring.

At a mid-April board meeting about a week after the announcement, Orange County Health Care Agency Director Clayton Chau clarified that the county was not considering a vaccine passport but rather will offer a voluntary digital vaccination record for residents who request it in the form of a QR code in the Othena app, which the county has used for scheduling coronavirus testing and COVID-19 vaccinations. Close to 200 people spoke out against vaccine passports at that meeting.

Supervisors have also sought to allay the concerns of the public, repeatedly pointing out that the county is not considering a mandatory vaccine passport.

But the assurances of county officials have fallen on deaf ears, as hundreds of members of the public have overtaken the last few Board of Supervisors meetings to rail against the idea of vaccine passports. Many of those protesters have compared the idea to practices of the Nazis, who murdered an estimated 6 million Jewish people during the Holocaust.

Some of the attendees have worn yellow stars on their arms during the meetings, meant to symbolize the yellow stars of David that the Nazis forced Jewish people to wear. The Jewish community has criticized the comparison.

During Tuesday’s meeting, board Chairman Andrew Do limited speakers to 30 seconds due to the high volume of public commenters. The speakers continued to compare vaccine passports to Nazi Germany and other tyrannical governments.

As with other meetings, speakers regularly invoked the power of God and told supervisors that they will be “judged” for their actions. More than one speaker referenced the Book of Revelations, the apocalyptic book of the Bible.

“My forefathers fought for my freedom to be able to choose,” one woman said at the meeting. “This isn’t communist Russia. This isn’t communist China. This isn’t Nazi Germany. The Jews had passports, look what that led to.”

Do made the motion to “pause” the development of the digital vaccination record, he said, because it is deterring some residents from getting vaccinated.

“We have come to the point where the noise around this whole vaccine passport has reached a point where it’s becoming counterproductive,” Do said. "... So what I’m proposing today is, in order that we can move ahead with vaccination, that we say definitively today that Orange County will stop moving ahead in establishing any kind of digital record, any QR code, anything involving vaccination, beyond the CDC paper card that we get when we get vaccinated.”

In a couple of heated exchanges with other supervisors, Foley came out against Do’s motion and said it would only appease a small faction of the community.

She pointed out that the people speaking out against the vaccine passports repeatedly say they don’t believe in the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines, so not offering the digital record won’t encourage anyone else to get vaccinated.

“I feel very strongly that the supermajority of the community that we serve support having a convenient digital record so that they can go about living their lives,” Foley said.

Foley added that she was concerned the public wasn’t able to voice its support for the digital record because Do’s proposal wasn’t put on the agenda.

“I don’t think that the public comments here today reflect a balanced view on the issue,” Foley said.

Foley further clarified her stance on the issue in a statement that was released following the vote.

“The voluntary digital record provision would have provided a convenient option for individuals, should they need to show proof of vaccination for access to businesses and entertainment venues,” Foley said. “As I have previously stated, this was intended as a courtesy and not a mandate. There is no vote to mandate vaccine passports. Anyone suggesting otherwise is directly harming the county’s public health and vaccination outreach efforts. This misinformation campaign is led by the same people who deny COVID-19 and have opposed vaccines and masks altogether.”

Supervisor Doug Chaffee expressed concern that it may be difficult for people to replace their vaccination card if it gets lost and said he hoped the county would provide an easy way to replace it. However, he didn’t add anything to the motion.

County Chief Executive Frank Kim clarified that people will still be able to look up that they’ve been vaccinated in their personal profile on the Othena app. Do’s motion concerns the QR code that would have been used by businesses or other third parties to verify that someone has been vaccinated.

The public outcry and vote to pause the QR code come as the county is dealing with how to combat vaccine hesitancy among the public.

For the most part, California’s recent success against the virus has been the public’s willingness to get vaccinated, data show. Yet some remain hesitant for a number of reasons, some of which may be fueled by misinformation.

Last week, the county’s mostly right-wing Board of Education approved a statement against mandatory vaccinations and a resolution against digital vaccine passports.

Several residents spoke at the public comment section against vaccine passports, echoing similar sentiments to those expressed at the Board of Supervisors meetings. One woman said she doesn’t want to become a genetically modified organism from taking the vaccine, and another said a vaccine passport is in violation of the Nuremberg Trials, the military tribunals held after World War II to prosecute Nazis who took part in the Holocaust and committed war crimes.

Andrew Noymer, a UC Irvine professor of population health and disease prevention, said the Board of Education is stirring the pot by reinforcing and echoing the beliefs of people who are hesitant to get a vaccine.

“What the O.C. Board of Education is doing is making a statement that they won’t allow involuntary vaccination of Orange County children, but nobody’s saying that that’s going to happen,” Noymer said.

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