Orange County to test digital COVID-19 vaccine passports

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Orange County will launch a pilot program to test out digital COVID-19 vaccine passports, health officials announced this week.

“The Digital Passport enables individuals to participate safety and with peace of mind in activities that involve interactions with other people, including travel, attractions, conferences/meetings, concerts, sports, school and more,” Orange County Health Care Agency officials said on Twitter.

Few details were available on how the digital passport would work to verify COVID-19 immunization status.

County health officer, Dr. Clayton Chau, told the O.C. Register that Orange County could easily update its vaccine appointment scheduling website, Othena, so that people who used it to get vaccinated could show anyone proof of their vaccination.

Othena is being used for vaccine appointments at the county’s mass inoculation sites, including Disneyland, the O.C. Fairgrounds and Soka University.

So far, 598,838 people are fully vaccinated in Orange County and another 589,230 people have only received one dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, according to county data.

Orange County’s announcement comes after California state officials unveiled plans to allow private events with more people together if all guests are tested or show proof of full vaccination starting April 15.

Orange County is currently in the orange tier of the state’s color-coded, four-tier reopening blueprint. If the region stays in that tier by April 15, it will mean that residents can have private events like wedding receptions or conferences with up to 300 guests outdoors or 150 indoors if everyone shows proof of full vaccination, according to state guidelines.

California Public Health Officer Dr. Tomás Aragón said last week the state doesn’t have plans to create vaccination passports, but will follow the federal government’s lead.

“If they don’t move fast enough, we will come up with technical standards that will be expected really focusing on making sure that privacy is protected and that equity is is protected,” Aragón said.

In this undated photo, provided by NY Governor's Press Office on Saturday March 27, 2021, is the new "Excelsior Pass" app, a digital pass that people can download to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test. Vaccine passports being developed to verify COVID-19 immunization status and allow inoculated people to more freely travel, shop and dine have become the latest flash point in America’s perpetual political wars, with Republicans portraying them as a heavy-handed intrusion into personal freedom and private health choices. (NY Governor's Press Office via AP, File)
In this undated photo, provided by NY Governor’s Press Office on Saturday March 27, 2021, is the new “Excelsior Pass” app, a digital pass that people can download to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test. (NY Governor’s Press Office via AP, File)

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the federal government will not require Americans to have vaccine passports.

“The government is not now, nor will we be supporting a system that requires Americans to carry a credential,” she said in a Tuesday media briefing. “There will be no federal vaccinations database and no federal mandate requiring everyone to obtain a single vaccination credential. “

Orange County wouldn’t be the first U.S. jurisdiction to try digital passports to verify immunization status.

New York State is using Excelsior Pass, a vaccine passport that is optional for residents to use. It’s being touted as “a tool to support reopening New York’s economy and accelerating the return to pre-pandemic activities.”

With vaccinations underway and economies reopening, the idea of using digital vaccine passports is being brought up more frequently.

But it has also generated controversy over whether it’s government overreach and raised concerns about if requiring them would create inequities since not everyone has access to a smart phone.

They’re also drawing opposition from GOP lawmakers.

Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis last week issued an executive order saying no governmental entity can issue a vaccine passport, and businesses in that state can’t require them, the Associated Press reported.

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