OC officials address online vaccine passport concerns

Orange County Health Care Agency Director Clayton Chau and members of the Orange County Board of Supervisors addressed fears and clarified details about the digital passport testing program announced by OC Health Care agency online.

Chau said there has been a “misunderstanding or confusion” in the community regarding the announcement of the digital passport, and what he or the county can mandate. 

“We will never mandate COVID-19 vaccination because of the emergency use authorization,” Chau said.

Public backlash first began when OC Health Care Agency announced on Twitter a program for a Digital Passport for “COVID-19 vaccine and testing credentialing” on April 8, leading some to believe these would be mandatory for residents. Some also believed these passports would also affect children returning to school. 

This comes after the OC Board of Education recently issued an update addressing this growing concern on social media, reassuring parents and community members that COVID-19 cannot be mandatory because of the emergency use authorization status issued by the Federal Drug Administration. Chau also reminded residents that there is currently no vaccine authorized for children under 16, making a vaccine requirement further impossible at this time.

According to reporting by CalMatters, California’s top health official, Dr. Mark Ghaly said the state has “no plans” to roll out a vaccine passport. Several states, including Texas and Florida, have recently gone as far as banning digital vaccine passports. 

During this time of mounting nationwide debate about vaccine passports, the FBI has released a warning about fake vaccination cards, which have been printed at home or available for sale on social media sites like Twitter. This prompted the National Association of Attorneys General to issue a letter to three CEO’s, including Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, calling upon the companies to take action against this fraud. Chau points to this as another reason officials want to make these cards digital.

“We look at it more like a digital vaccine record,” Chau said. 

Chau said that OC’s digital “passport” won’t really act as a passport, since the state can’t mandate businesses to utilize them as a requirement for customers. Instead, it will act as an app one can voluntarily download to prove they’ve been vaccinated. Chau also noted the OC Health Care Agency is required by law to give patients proof they were treated which would be streamlined by an app. 

It is not immediately clear how this would impact those who get their vaccinations at pharmacies, such as Walgreens. 

One of the apps officials are looking at is in the trial phase, called CommonPass. Othena, who OC has partnered with for vaccine scheduling via their website and app, could also be updated easily to include a digital passport. 

County Executive Officer Frank Kim added that though the app will be downloaded through the Apple or Android store, the certification of the digital passport won’t be automatic. Users will have to press a button located inside the app connected to the county, which will verify the vaccination status of the user and provide a QR code to push back against potential fraud. 

Those who don’t download the app will still receive the traditional letter stating they were vaccinated, which Chau said is actually riskier when it comes to privacy, because it’s easier to lose physical letters or cards.

OC Board of Supervisor Chairman Andrew Do said that since vaccinations and the passport won’t be mandatory, those who have digital passports will not be given preferential treatment in any way and that this will not lead to exclusionary behavior of those not vaccinated. He agreed with Chau that it will be treated more of a digital medical history in OC. 

Users’ personal information will be centrally stored in the Apple Cloud, which is secure enough that the U.S. Department of Defense authorized it for Pentagon use. When the QR code on the app is scanned, it only shows the user’s name and birthdate. When providing testing or vaccination proof to the state for events, entities can only provide a list of QR codes of attendees, not names or any other identifying information. 

Information stored in the cloud will be subject to the same HIPPA laws as normal medical records. 

According to Supervisor Katrina Foley, the state is currently considering allowing venues (for events such as concerts) to increase their capacity from 33% to 67%, if all attendees provide proof of either a negative COVID-19 test or vaccination. This further raises the question of how the state will regulate this, balancing public safety with privacy concerns posed by the app. 

With California setting a goal of completely re-opening the state by June 15, these are decisions that will need to be made and rolled out quickly. 

This discussion item on today’s meeting’s agenda drew 213 citizens wanting to publicly address the board. Many of those residents were concerned if these digital “health records,” as described by Chau, were actually that different from digital passports. 

There’s also concerns that though the state or county isn’t mandating digital passports, private businesses can still mandate them, which could lead to the same exclusionary outcome for those not vaccinated or without the technology to download the app. 

“A turd by any other name is still a turd,” said one of these concerned residents, while addressing the board.

Another resident talked about concerns of the app not addressing those who can’t receive the COVID-19 vaccination due to immunity issues, fearing that would lead to discrimination to those with underlying medical conditions. 

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