Music festival rolls out made-in-Ottawa vaccine passport, one month before province

·3 min read
A worker at the Escapade Music Festival scans a ticketholder's proof of vaccination before letting them onto the grounds Saturday. The music festival is using an app designed by The Ottawa Hospital long before the COVID-19 pandemic erupted last year. (Ben Andrews/CBC News - image credit)
A worker at the Escapade Music Festival scans a ticketholder's proof of vaccination before letting them onto the grounds Saturday. The music festival is using an app designed by The Ottawa Hospital long before the COVID-19 pandemic erupted last year. (Ben Andrews/CBC News - image credit)

An Ottawa electronic music festival that's one of the largest in Canada has debuted its own homegrown proof-of-vaccination system, one month before the Ontario government is due to roll out a provincewide digital vaccine passport.

The Escapade festival is requiring anyone in attendance to show proof they've been fully immunized against COVID-19. It's confirming people's status with the CANImmunize app, developed by a team at The Ottawa Hospital long before the pandemic began.

"We had a conversation with Ottawa Public Health about the best way of trying to process this, and that app stood out," said Ali Shafaee, the festival's executive director.

"It wasn't just an app [created because of] COVID ... so they already had a lot of the infrastructure in place."

Ben Andrews/CBC News
Ben Andrews/CBC News

Escapade's website instructs concertgoers to upload their personal information and either a photo or a screenshot of their vaccination receipts to the CANImmunize app.

The festival, which is taking place this weekend at Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton Park, also accepts QR codes from Quebecers who already have a provincial vaccine passport.

Shafaee said he doubled the number of entrance lanes and staff at the gate to smooth any delays in processing tickets.

"A normal processing time can be 20 to 25 minutes," said Shafaee. "This year, it seems to be a little bit quicker."

Alexander Behne/CBC
Alexander Behne/CBC

Made-in-Ottawa solution

The CANImmunize app launched in 2014 as ImmunizeCA, and was funded by the Public Health Agency of Canada and developed by researchers at The Ottawa Hospital to help Canadians store, manage and access immunization information.

Its purpose was to warn users of nearby disease outbreaks and help track when vaccinations, booster and flu shots were available.

"When COVID hit, we recognized that eventually there would need to be a vaccine, and we attempted to prepare for that eventuality." said Dr. Kumanan Wilson, an Ottawa physician and member of the app's development team.

CANImmunize has since partnered with the Nova Scotia Department of Health and Wellness to coordinate that province's COVID-19 response.

'Best done by a government organization'

To ensure appropriate user authentication long-term, Wilson said it's best the provincial passport system — which is set to come into effect Sept. 22, with a digital certificate and mobile app expected by Oct. 22 — is handled by the government.

"The information comes from the government repository. It needs to be valid, and the individuals who are authenticated need to know it came from a valid issuer," he said.

"All of those are best done by a government organization."

Ben Andrews/CBC News
Ben Andrews/CBC News

Until the app comes into effect, Ontarians will need to produce printed or downloaded vaccination receipts and a valid photo identification to enter indoor venues like gyms and restaurants as of Sept. 22.

In an email, a spokesperson for Ontario's Associate Ministry of Digital Government said it "applaud[s]" innovation in the private sector and will continue to consult with industry as it develops its own verification app.

Escapade was last held in Ottawa in 2019, and organizers have had to cancel it three times due to COVID-19.

Festival organizers said the event sold out at 8,500 tickets. The festival sells between 20,000 and 25,000 tickets in a normal year.

Although masks are required and security was on site to enforce the mandate, many in attendance left their faces uncovered.

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