There’s a new travel opportunity taking the world by storm. Wealthy individuals living outside the U.S. have been flying into the country to get a COVID-19 vaccine. Travel companies in India and other nations have set up exclusive packages that include a shot of the drug, as long as these “tourists” are willing to pay for it.
This is what’s known as “vaccine tourism.” With little input from the federal government, states across the U.S. have been tasked with distributing the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine as they see fit; however, poor oversight and broad eligibility requirements have led to confusion and chaos in some areas as the well-connected swoop in to get their shots.
Jumping the Line
When the federal government started rolling out the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine last month, the Trump Administration said it was up to the states to decide how they were going to use them. In most cases, the first shots were reserved for frontline healthcare workers and nursing home residents, but some states were more flexible in terms of who could sign up for a dose.
Some of the blame seems to lie with Florida. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an executive order just before Christmas that said anyone could get the shot in his state as long as they were over the age of 65. The order didn’t require that people actually live in the state.
This set off a flurry of vaccine tourism headed to Florida.
Before long, people living outside the state started crashing the party. There have been reports of Brazilians, Canadians, Venezuelans, and people living from other states visiting the Sunshine State to get their shots.
Argentinian lawyer Ana Rosenfeld, 66, says she recently got her shot in a small town outside of Tampa, FL while visiting family in Miami. “I always wanted to get the vaccine,” she told an Argentinian news show. “If I would have had the possibility of doing it in Argentina, I would have done it.”
Richard Parsons, the former chairman and CEO of Time Warner, recently took to live TV to talk about how he was able to fly from New York to Florida to get his vaccine.
“It’s orderly and sensible,” said Parsons, 72. “I don’t know how Florida got the march on everyone else. But, you go online. You make an appointment. You get an appointment.”
Just a few weeks after the first dose of the vaccine started rolling off the factory floor in the US, an Indian travel company called Gem Tours & Travel listed a new travel option on its website: a four-day trip from Mumbai to New York City with an included COVID-19 shot for $2,000.
Nimesh Shah, the company’s business development specialist, says his company created the trend. “We are only taking registrations of Indians with a valid 10-year U.S. visa,” he said. “We are not taking any money but just collecting data for the moment. We are proud to have coined the term ‘vaccine tourism’.”
Soon, the company’s competitors started offering similar travel packages.
A recent report from a newspaper in Buenos Aires shows that around a dozen executives from Brazil recently flew to Florida to get their shots.
The article said, “It’s free and it’s not necessary to be a resident, only to be 65 years old and not have received any other vaccinations in the past 14 days.”
An “Ethical Framework”
Reports of vaccine tourism quickly spread across the globe.
As a result, Dr. Scott Rivkees, Florida’s surgeon general, signed a public health advisory last Thursday that requires anyone getting the vaccine in Florida to show proof of residence, hopefully halting vaccine tourism there.
But is it too little too late? Public records show that nearly 40,000 people living outside the state have already been vaccinated in Florida.
State officials hope the new requirement will put an end to this new trend, but Dr. Marissa J. Levine, a public health professor at the University of South Florida, isn’t so sure.
She says the federal government and states need what she calls an “ethical framework” for distributing the vaccine.
“Right now, it’s a scarce resource and demand is outstripping supply,” Levine said. “If you don’t have that kind of framework, people with power and money will do everything they can to cut the line. Clearly, it’s not right that people with power and money get the vaccine before others.”
Dr. Joseph Varon of the United Memorial Medical Center in Houston says he is constantly fielding offers from people living outside the state looking to get their shot.
“I get text messages every five minutes of people from all over the world, ‘Uh, hey! Can you set us up with the vaccine?” Varon said.
Adding additional verification requirements may help prevent vaccine tourism, but some people living in the state will likely have trouble showing proof of residency, especially non-English speakers and low-income Americans.
Officials are cracking down on vaccine tourism, but every state, county, and facility will need to decide what’s best for their residents as the process ramps up.