The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

GOP lawmaker asked whether vaccines have ‘tracking devices.’ He insists he was trying to debunk ‘wild’ claims.

Orange County, Calif. Supervisor Don P. Wagner (R) on April 27, asked the county health director if coronavirus vaccines contained tracking devices. (Video: Orange County Board of Supervisors)

It took the top health official in Orange County, Calif., a few seconds to process a lawmaker’s question Tuesday during a Board of Supervisors meeting to discuss “vaccine passports.”

“In the vaccine, we heard about an injection of the tracking device,” Supervisor Don P. Wagner (R) said. “Is that being done anywhere in Orange County?”

Clayton Chau, the county’s health-care agency director, could not hold back his shocked laughter.

“I’m sorry. I just have to compose myself,” Chau said moments later. “There’s not a vaccine with a tracking device embedded in it that I know of exists in the world. Period.”

The clip quickly went viral, with critics piling on and accusing Wagner of spreading vaccine misinformation in a public meeting.

“Dear @DonWagnerCA, there is no tracking device in the #COVID19 vaccine,” tweeted Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and health economist with the Federation of American Scientists. “Stop peddling conspiracies. You know you asked it in a conspiracy-deranged manner.”

But the legislator fiercely defended his question, insisting that he brought up the question on behalf of constituents who “made wild charges” about the vaccines, including a false claim that there are “microchips” in the shots.

“I led Dr. Chau through those charges and to have him debunk them,” Wagner said in an email to The Washington Post. “I knew they are not true but wanted the public to hear that directly from Dr. Chau. I got exactly the response from Dr. Chau I expected, with the same laugh at the absurdity of the charges that they deserve.”

In a statement shared with The Post, Chau defended Wagner and said he was not laughing at the lawmaker but at a crowd of people who showed up to the meeting and expressed their beliefs that there is a tracking device in the vaccine.

“I know the Supervisor doesn’t believe that myth because we talked about it; and because I was the one who vaccinated him,” Chau said.

The viral exchange comes as Orange County confronts a wave of fierce vaccine skepticism, including at a Board of Supervisors meeting two weeks ago that drew hundreds protesting the possible use of electronic vaccination records. A little over a million county residents have been fully vaccinated.

The incident also arrives as a significant number of Republicans continue to resist the vaccines, as The Post’s Dan Diamond recently reported. Although more than half of U.S. adults have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine, more than 40 percent of Republicans have consistently told pollsters they’re not planning to be vaccinated.

‘I’m still a zero’: Vaccine-resistant Republicans warn that their skepticism is worsening

Wagner, a practicing attorney and former mayor of Irvine, was elected in 2019 to represent nearly 600,000 residents of Anaheim Hills, Irvine and other communities in Orange County. The viral clip isn’t the first time he’s found himself in the middle of a controversy about the coronavirus pandemic.

Last July, Wagner served on an 11-member panel that issued local school guidelines and recommended against social distancing measures and mask-wearing for children, claiming that mask rules are “not only difficult, if not impossible to implement, but not based on science,” and “may be harmful.”

When questioned by CNN’s Brianna Keilar, Wagner, who said he supported the “voluntary” use of masks, distanced himself from the guidance and denied ever writing or supporting these guidelines despite being an appointed member of the panel.

“Those are not my recommendations,” Wagner told the network on July 15. “All I did was give a couple of minutes really of discussion.”

The Voice of OC later reported the guidelines were not written by Wagner nor the rest of the panelists but by Ken Williams Jr., an Orange County Board of Education board member, and Will Swaim, president of the nonprofit California Policy Center.

The next month, Wagner said he opposed Gov. Gavin Newsom’s (D) “erratic” covid-19 response, referencing the governor’s color-coded system intended to “slow” the reopening of the state’s businesses.

“This is not following the science,” Wagner then said.

Then, about two weeks ago, he argued that “vaccinations should never be required to access government services, and government must never discriminate against its citizens.”

Wagner, though, has expressed his support for the vaccines and got a Johnson & Johnson shot from Chau earlier this month. Wagner tweeted a picture of it, thanking Chau for the “quick and painless” experience.

Tuesday’s meeting was marked by a wave of protesters who flocked to the room to object to vaccines and mask rules. The group also protested the idea of vaccine passports, the Voice of OC reported.

Wagner first asked Chau whether a digital record of vaccinations in the county would be used for “tracking folks.”

“Nope,” Chau said.

Then, Wagner directly asked Chau whether vaccines in Orange County had tracking devices in them — setting off the Internet firestorm.

Wagner said his intent was to disprove misinformation, not spread it.

“He [Chau] and I are in regular communication about these public myths, and when they persist for months on end, we work together to dispel them. I am in no way concerned about trackers in the vaccine and Dr. Chau knows this, as he administered my vaccine. ... I continue to encourage everybody to get vaccinated if they can,” Wagner told The Post.

Wagner also asked Chau whether the county should lift its emergency declaration on the pandemic, arguing that case rates, positivity rates and hospitalizations have been consistently low for some time.

“We always had the flu and it always kills people in Orange County. But we don’t declare a state of emergency,” Wagner said.

About 543 people die of the flu in Orange County every year, according to state data cited by the Voice of OC, while nearly 5,000 county residents have died of virus complications, according to data compiled by the Orange County Health Care Agency.

Chau and other colleagues said it was premature to lift the state of emergency, adding that the county will lose significant funds if the order is lifted too soon.

By the end of the meeting, county officials put proposals about digital vaccine records on hold.

Loading...