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Orange County, CA

Vaccine passports are upon us and people are protesting against them

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Josue Torres
Josue Torres
Passport illustration.Getty

Vaccine “passports” are the newest subject for several states that believe it might help with keeping records and reopening more places. However, a lot of people vehemently oppose the idea

On the same day that Orange County reported some of the most promising coronavirus numbers to date, approaching the state’s least stringent yellow tier in the reopening blueprint — hundreds of protesters assembled to criticize the Board of Supervisors over a decision to establish “vaccine passports,” or digital documents that track COVID-19 vaccination status.

The public outpouring of rage started in April when the county revealed intentions to introduce a credentialing pilot program

Almost instantly, a vocal community of detractors voiced fear that the digital archives would be used to “watch and track” individuals and expose private healthcare details.
Protesters gathered.Don Wagner

Opponents have said that it would encourage the county to prioritize people who wanted to get vaccinated.

County authorities have consistently said that the allegations are false.

However, conflicts erupted within the meeting hall on Tuesday after Chairman Andrew Do suggested putting the initiative on hold in order to eliminate distractions and refocus on the county’s vaccination initiatives.

“The noise around this whole vaccine passport has reached the point where it’s becoming counterproductive,” Do stated. “On the eve of our county going into the yellow tier — we are about to open up even more — the goal for us, in order to adequately protect all of us … is going to be vaccination.”

The county edged forward to the state’s most lenient tier of economic reopenings on Tuesday, publishing the first of two weeks of qualified data needed to proceed. Since March 29, Orange County has been in the orange, or moderate, category.

Supervisor Katrina Foley vigorously rejected Do’s attempt to halt the automated record-keeping scheme, pointing out that the county’s economy is heavily reliant on tourists, amusement parks, sports activities, and music halls — all of which offer tickets digitally — and that digital evidence of vaccination may be critical to their ability to function at full capacity. 

Foley was also concerned that the county had already compensated for the service’s establishment.

“This was a convenient, opt-in, voluntary opportunity for individuals to be able to benefit their businesses as well as be able to go about living their lives,” she said. “We are appeasing a very small faction of our community who actually are not going to get vaccinated. They’ve already told us they don’t believe in vaccines.”

The pilot program plan involved providing a QR code to vaccinated residents who enrolled for appointments through the county’s Othena app. 

County leaders emphasized that automated vaccine databases will be a better replacement to the paper certificates provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which are usually quickly misplaced or discarded.

Many locals were skeptical.
Woman holding a sign at the protest.Michele Gile

At least 580 people had lined up by midday to make public comments during the county conference, including those from Los Angeles

Everyone had 30 seconds to talk, and the vast majority of them used it to persuade county officials to refuse the passport. 

“I will not be bullied, coerced, harassed in any way, shape or form … into participating into a massive human experiment in order to fit in,” said one woman, who did not identify herself.

Another speaker used county statistics to argue that the bulk of unvaccinated people in the county are opposed to vaccination and the usage of passports.

“It’s not about availability, it’s about the legal right of choice,” she said. “I’m a millennial in my prime who dreams of having a family, and I’m terrified to bring children into a world that violates their conscience and disrespects their freedom as citizens of the United States of America.”

According to The Times’ tracker, about 51% of Orange County residents have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, with 38% completely vaccinated. 

The figures are comparable to the county, where 49 percent of people have gotten at least one dose and 36 percent have been completely immunized. According to the CDC, about 58 percent of people in the United States have undergone at least one vaccination.

However, vaccination rates in Orange County, as in the rest of the state, are slowing. 

Due to low demand, the county reported last week that mass vaccination sites at the Anaheim Convention Center, O.C. Fair & Event Center, Soka University, and Santa Ana College will shut on June 6. 

The last first-dose Moderna appointments were available on May 8, and the last Pfizer appointments will be available on Saturday.

Images shared on social media revealed that news of Tuesday’s demonstration had been spreading digitally and via fliers that referred to Orange County as “the battleground of the nation.” 

Leigh Dundas, a lawyer well known for her vehement opposition to pediatric immunization laws, took to YouTube to urge citizens to attend the Board of Supervisors meeting in large numbers.

“I cannot underscore enough: This is the hill we die on,” Dundas said. “We cannot allow the people of America to be segregated or to be made prisoners in their own homes.”

One activist on Tuesday called the people “patriots,” and claimed he was there to show that “America in general is not going to be okay with this.”

Hundreds of protesters yelled and waved banners and American flags behind him. 

Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, head of the medical ethics program at UC Irvine and a member of the Orange County vaccination task force, said Tuesday that he supports COVID-19 vaccinations but understands the outpouring of criticism.

“I understand why it’s becoming so politicized,” he said, because “if private entities start developing policies that deploy that tool as a gatekeeper, then I think the fears and concerns that many people are trying to express right now actually will be borne out.”

Kheriaty stated that the county has already done a decent job of vaccinating those who need it the most — the elderly and residents with underlying health problems — and that those who stay unvaccinated do it so for social, health, or other personal reasons.

Requiring vaccination — whether at the federal or state level, or merely for admission into areas like restaurants, airlines, grocery stores, and colleges — may put certain citizens at a disadvantage, he believes.

“I would consider blocking off access to otherwise ordinarily available public activities as a fairly heavy-handed form of coercion,” Kheriaty said. “I’m ‘pro’ let the person decide. Let the individual weigh their own risks and benefits.”

County administrators, on the other hand, have consistently indicated that no such limitations would be included with the digital records.

They claimed that the digital “passport” was intended to replace paper cards.

 If the program is thrown away, people would need to keep their own documents and records physically in order.

“If you were to lose [the card], you would have to go through the normal process of requesting a duplicate, but at least it takes that off of the discussion and we can move on as a county,” he said, adding that vaccinating the remaining 30% of Orange County citizens needed to achieve herd immunity will be challenging given the level of resistance.

The vaccination passport debate is not restricted to Orange County. When the state declared in April that certain companies might host bigger gatherings provided they verified that visitors were vaccinated, some saw it as an opportunity.

According to experts, vaccine requirements would more likely be implemented by businesses, universities, and other industries

At least one individual in California has already been detained and charged with distributing counterfeit COVID-19 vaccination cards.

Many of those marching, according to Foley, were the same individuals who spoke out about face masks in Orange County last year. 

Foley said that “we do not appeal to those who perpetuate rumors and lies.” Explaining that truth and facts should prevail above anything else.

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