Orange County officials are quietly increasing taxpayer spending from about $1 million to nearly $4 million for a controversial, glitch-ridden app that accounts for a large share of coronavirus vaccinations in Orange County.
County supervisors, who raised no questions about the cost spike at their public meeting Tuesday, spent most of their day fielding questions from worried residents who were distressed about cryptic language in the buried contract disclosure for the app, known as Othena.
The app, made by a contractor known variously as Composite Apps or CuraPatient, was secretly commissioned by the county last fall under a $1.2 million contract without ever appearing on county supervisors’ public agendas. Over 100,000 people have had to use the app to access vaccines in Orange County.
The app has been ridden with so many glitches that Supervisor Don Wagner at one point said in public session that “Othena sucks.”
Now, county officials are increasing the spending to $3.8 million with no public disclosure of the actual terms. The contract being increased is buried deep within dozens of documents attached to Tuesday’s supervisors meeting agenda, which doesn’t mention anything about contracts.
Much of the increase comes as Othena started adding digital proof-of-vaccination barcodes to the app page people use to check their vaccination history.
Othena labeled the QR code as a “Vaccine Passport,” prompting hours of concerned comments at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors.
Most of the supervisors time on pandemic items at Tuesday’s meeting was spent pushing back against rumors that the County of Orange would require vaccine passports.
Dr. Clayton Chau, the county’s health officer and director of the county Health Care Agency, said the county is merely trying to fulfil its duty to provide people proof of their own vaccination.
Chau chalked up the misunderstanding to the phrase “vaccine passport” that Othena started including in its app.
County health officials – including a committee led by Deputy Director Margaret Bredehoft who originally recommended Othena – declined Tuesday to answer questions from Voice of OC about Othena.
Those questions include who decided to call the barcode a “vaccine passport” in the app; who decided to make the QR code show up automatically when people check their vaccination status on the app; and what the actual text is of the $2.6 million contract increase for the app and why that wasn’t included in the public agenda.
The county’s approach – burying the fact they plan to sign a contract within a different agenda item Tuesday – fueled confusion and distrust among public commenters.
Many commenters urged county supervisors not to sign the contract, while supervisors Andrew Do and Katrina Foley responded and said the board had no such contract up for a vote.
That’s because county supervisors created a different process for Covid contracts, where the vast majority of agreements are approved by county staff with no official vote by supervisors.
Such contracts were kept secret from the public for months until Voice of OC discovered the scale of the secret contracting in January and published a series of articles about it.
Do criticized the news agency at a February meeting for requesting public records and asking questions about the secret contracts, and called the news organization “the Noise of OC.”
“I want to let the public know that we receive no less than two or three public record requests every day,” Do said, adding the county health officials are bearing “the brunt” of requests from what he called “the Noise of OC.”
But eventually, after major criticism from the public about the secret contracting process, county CEO Frank Kim promised to start publicly disclosing the contract he approved and plans to approve.
But those disclosures are now buried deep within the county’s general Covid update items, which don’t make any mention of the contracts in their public agenda title.
In response to questions from Voice of OC, county officials are now promising more transparency about such contract approvals in response to text messages from Voice of OC on Tuesday.
“I will work with the Clerk of the Board to describe the attachment so that it is more clear,” county CEO Frank Kim told Voice of OC when asked why Covid contracts aren’t named on the actual county meeting agenda.
It’s not the only issue drawing transparency questions around Othena.
Nearly three months after Voice of OC filed a records request for emails between county health executives and their technology director, there’s been no disclosure of any emails about Othena, despite it being the highest-profile IT project by the health agency.
Instead, the county has disclosed hundreds of pages of largely already-public information like press releases, in batches of emails that continue to trickle out.
There was no response from Kim’s staff when asked Tuesday why they haven’t disclosed any of the emails about Othena.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.