Vaccine Shortage Puts Americans on the Road in Search of Shots

People in the U.S. finally are traveling again, though not all these trips are for business or rest and relaxation. Instead, some are engaging in vaccine tourism.

Frustrated by crashing appointment websites, shortages of Covid-19 shots and a patchwork of confusing eligibility rules, people with time and money are heading out of town in pursuit of a potentially life-saving inoculation.

Former Citigroup chairman Richard Parsons is among them. He and his wife flew to Miami from New York this month when he found out that Florida was vaccinating people 65 and older “no questions asked,” said Parsons, 72, who initially didn’t qualify to receive the shot in New York.

“Florida made a simple demarcation as to who goes first, so we made a reservation online and four days later, bam, you’re done,” said Parsons, who was vaccinated and plans to get his second dose while in Florida. “That’s not the answer for 99% of the population, who can’t just roll down to Florida.”

This isn’t happening only in Florida. Vaccine-seeking tourists are showing up at beach resorts in Hawaii, ski towns in Colorado and in New York City, which has received more doses than other parts of the state, as well as nearby New Jersey and Connecticut.

There is no national data, yet states that keep track suggest that tens of thousands of Americans are traveling for the vaccine. More than 37,000 out-of-staters have received Covid-19 shots in Florida, according to state data as of Tuesday. The figure excludes people who have second residences or businesses in Florida, where about 1 million have been vaccinated.

In Illinois, about 14,000 people from out of state were vaccinated. About 59,000 who received the shot in New York City and 22,150 who got the shot in Washington, D.C., weren’t residents, according to the cities’ data.

Read More: Canada’s Flawed Vaccine Plan Sends Snowbirds to U.S. for Jab

Almost 15 million doses have been given across the U.S., according to Bloomberg’s vaccine tracker. Health policy experts say that, generally, the more people with shots in arms, the better. Yet vaccine tourism raises concerns over what happens to people who don’t have the money — or aren’t healthy enough — to travel for immunization. There are also ethical questions about whether it’s right to appropriate a dose intended for a specific city or state. The tourism industry hasn’t launched large marketing campaigns, so as to avoid appearing to advocate skirting the rules.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio warned Tuesday that after expanding eligibility to people 65 and older, the city was dangerously close to running out of vaccines and could begin closing vaccine sites Thursday unless it was resupplied.

About a quarter of the doses allocated to New York City were given to non-residents, according to city data. De Blasio said in a Jan. 12 press conference that the issue was a “real concern,” and advised those who “live outside the five boroughs and are not an essential worker, you shouldn’t be getting a shot in New York City.”

Read More: NYC to Run Out of Vaccines Next Week Without Major Resupply

Health experts also have concerns about people traveling for immunization.

“From a public health perspective, everything we can do to get more people vaccinated will decrease the spread of Covid,” said Marissa J. Levine, a public health professor at the University of South Florida. “But we’re in a situation where demand is outstripping supply significantly, so that puts people on edge if they perceive that others are coming in to take their vaccine, even if it’s really all of our vaccine.”

Fairness Issue

Some people are worried that tourists will use up the supply of doses in their community.

Lois Miller, 77, lives about 35 miles south of Orlando, in Davenport, Florida, and says she hasn’t been able to get a vaccine for her or her husband, Franklin, 83. Miller, who moved to Davenport 17 years ago after living in Manhattan and New Jersey, said the influx of vaccine tourists “doesn’t make us feel good.”

“If it was plentiful, and we were able to get ours, I wouldn’t blame them,” she said. “But I live here and I can’t get through. That’s where the unfairness is.”

Vaccines are technically federal property that don’t belong to any one locality, making residency requirements hard to enforce, said Levine, who served four years as Virginia’s state health commissioner.

Such rules are even more fraught when it comes to commuter-heavy regions like New York City or in vacation destinations. “You may want to prioritize your own people, but if people get hospitalized by Covid while they are in your town or city, then it becomes your responsibility,” Levine said.

Ski towns have attempted to limit vaccination to residents — with some success — to ensure people will still be around to get their second shot a few weeks later.

Aspen’s Pitkin County says those eligible for the vaccine must live or work there.

Summit County, Utah, home to Park City, Deer Valley and other ski resorts, said it’s encouraging workers from outside the county to get the vaccine in their hometowns, said Summit County Health Department spokesperson Derek Siddoway. “However, we will not turn anyone away.”

About 4,400 doses have been given to people from out of state, according to Utah’s vaccination dashboard.

That open-door policy attracted 42-year-old Tina Lyra of Sao Paulo, who is with a group of 21 people flying to Aspen on Tuesday looking to combine a ski vacation with vaccination.

The group first traveled from Brazil to a private villa on the Caribbean island of Anguilla, where they quarantined for 14 days so they could enter the U.S. They registered for the vaccine on Pitkin County’s website, which says it will email people when it’s their turn to make an appointment.

“So now we wait to see how long it takes for them to call us up,” said Lyra, who runs TL Portfolio, a travel and marketing agency.

It could be a while. Colorado doesn’t expect to get though the 70-plus age category until the end of February, said Tracy Trulove, a Pitkin County public information officer. “If you’re coming to Aspen for a vaccine, you’re making a bet that we’re in a phase that includes you,” she said.

Vaccine Speculation

Yet once word gets out, people pursue the shots. Earl Campazzi secured 200 doses for members of his Palm Beach, Florida, concierge medical practice who are 65 and older. He said hundreds of nonmembers tried to gain access. One New Yorker offered to fly down and pay him $10,000 for a shot. Another turned up at the office waving a $7,500 check to become a member. Campazzi said he turned them down.

Some people are staying within their home state yet traveling to a region where they think the vaccine may be more plentiful. In New York, Michelle Bernstein, 77, and her husband, Stephen, drove about 45 miles from her home in Putnam County to a city-operated vaccination site in the Bronx after she couldn’t nail down an appointment closer to home.

The couple will return to the Bronx site on Feb. 8 for their second dose, driving about an hour each way. “The toughest part was the traffic on the Cross Bronx Expressway,” said Stephen Bernstein.

— With assistance by Stacie Sherman

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