Vaccine Tourism: What You Need to Know

Jumping the line for a COVID-19 vaccine.

Some people around the US and throughout the world have used a strategy dubbed "vaccine tourism" to get the COVID-19 vaccine before it became available to them where they live. The idea of looking past your own country's borders to get medical care is not new. Lots of people travel to other parts of the world for medical treatments, from heart surgery to IVF to breast implants.

Vaccine tourism means visiting another country or state to get a vaccine that's not available to you at home. Right now, vaccine tourism is all about the COVID-19 vaccine, which had a slow rollout in many states and wasn't initially available worldwide.

In the US and other countries, some populations had a priority for the vaccine. And certain groups continue to have priority for new boosters as they emerge, such as the elderly and health care workers. But some people who either don't have access to the vaccine or who don't fall into these groups have reportedly been jumping the line and traveling elsewhere for their shots.

In December 2020, an Indian travel agency (which claims to have coined the vaccine tourism phrase) told ThePrint that they were "taking registrations of Indians with a valid 10-year US visa" for their COVID-19 vaccine package—a four-day trip from Mumbai to New York City, with a coronavirus shot included. The cost? NBC News reported a cost of around $2000 in January 2021. Other travel agencies in India confirmed to ThePrint that they created similar tour packages to the US, UK, and Russia for people to get their COVID-19 shot.

Is Vaccine Tourism Legal?

Not officially. There haven't been formal arrangements in place with foreign authorities to ensure these "vaccine tourists" get the experience they're promised, shot in the arm and all. Of equal concern are the ethics of people with money or connections visiting another state or country to get a COVID vaccine while others wait for their turn per guidelines set up by their country or state.

Some countries have created policies to actively prevent vaccine tourism. In the UK, for example, you can only get the vaccine when you're offered it through your doctor, and you need to confirm your personal details, including address, at your appointment for the shot. And it's a free vaccination for everyone through the country's National Health Service (NHS), so you can't pay to jump the line by getting it privately.

Florida: A Vaccine Tourist Hotspot

Florida, one of the first states to make the vaccine available to everyone age 65 and over, didn't experience a smooth rollout. This was partly because initially, vaccine recipients didn't have to verify their residency status before getting the shot. As a result, the South Florida Sun Sentinel reported in January 2021 that many people flew into the Sunshine State to get their shots—from other states and even from other countries, like Argentina and Canada.

Clamping Down

That loophole was closed. According to CNN, on January 19, 2021, Governor Ron DeSantis said, "We're only doing (shots) for Florida residents. You've got to live here either full-time or at least part-time." Two days later, Florida State Surgeon General Scott Rivkees, MD, issued a public health advisory requiring verification of residency in Florida for anybody receiving the vaccine.

The inclusion of part-time residents was a relief to so-called "snowbirds"—people who live in Florida during the winter months. "Now we do have part-time residents who are here all winter," DeSantis said. "They go to doctors here or whatever, that's fine. What we don't want is tourists, foreigners. We want to put seniors first, but we obviously want to put people that live here first in line," added DeSantis.

Vaccine Tourism Across the US

In other parts of the US, some form of "vaccine tourism" has also happened. For example, Mark and Connie Wallace, from Shelby County, Alabama, told CNN affiliate WBMA in January 2021 that they drove almost two hours to get vaccinated at a Publix pharmacy in Carroll County, Georgia.

"They knew that we were coming from out of state and they said that that was fine," said Connie, who told the station that she was 68 and had underlying health issues related to her heart. "So we didn't feel like we were pushing anybody else out, which we didn't want to do," explained Connie.

People could also travel to North Carolina from neighboring states to get the coronavirus vaccine, according to the state's Department of Health and Human Services. The lack of strict residency requirements meant that somebody from South Carolina or other neighboring states who were hospital workers or in the 75-year-plus age group could get a dose of the vaccination allocated for a North Carolina resident.

"A provider cannot refuse to vaccinate someone that presents for vaccination if they fall into the open prioritization phase and do not have a vaccine contradiction, so a resident of another state could be vaccinated here if they fall into the appropriate open prioritization phase," the department said in a statement to the Associated Press in January 2021.

Eligibility Varies By State

In the US, vaccine eligibility is determined by individual states, and each state has its own rules and procedures. The New York Times reported in October 2021 that some local public health departments created portals that people could use to make vaccination appointments, while others hosted mass vaccination events working on a first-come, first-served basis.

Many states let you check your eligibility for the vaccine online, and if you weren't yet eligible, you could register to be notified when your turn came up for the shot. In some states, you don't have to be an official resident to be eligible. For instance, the official California state government website states that "vaccine distribution is based on eligibility irrespective of residency or immigration status."

The state of New York has had stricter eligibility rules. If you're eligible for the vaccine on the basis of employment (e.g. you're a health care worker, police officer, childcare provider, grocery store worker), proof of employment in the State of New York has been required. If you're eligible on the basis of age (i.e. are 65 or over), proof of age and proof of residence in New York has been required.

A Slow Down In Vaccine Tourism

In December 2020, Dr. Anthony Fauci told MSNBC that the US could see the "overwhelming majority of the population vaccinated" by the second quarter of 2021. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has been tracking COVID-19 vaccination rates across the US, and there has been a decreased demand for vaccine tourism as vaccine availability has improved in the US and throughout the world.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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