What Is Vaccine Tourism, and Is It Legal? Here's What You Need to Know
Some people have found a way to jump the line for a COVID-19 vaccine.
Lots of people travel to other parts of the world for medical treatments, from IVF to breast implants. But "vaccine tourism" for a COVID-19 vaccination is a whole new concept.
Vaccine tourism means visiting another country or state to get a vaccine not available to you at home. Right now, vaccine tourism is all about the COVID-19 vaccine, which has had a slow rollout in many states and isn't yet available worldwide. In the US and other countries that have the vaccine, some populations are getting priority, such as the elderly and health care workers. But some people who don't fall into these groups have reportedly been jumping the line and traveling elsewhere for their shots.
In December, 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? Around $2,000, reported NBC News. Other travel agencies in India confirmed to ThePrint that they are creating similar tour packages to the US, UK, and Russia to get their COVID-19 shot.
Is vaccine tourism legal?
Not exactly. So far, there are no official 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 are now actively preventing 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 get it privately (and jump the line, effectively).
Things are a little more complicated in the US, of course, where vaccine availability is determined by individual states, and each state has its own rules and procedures. The New York Times reports that some local public health departments have portals people can use to make vaccination appointments, while others are hosting mass vaccination events working on a first-come, first-served basis. Generally, doctor's offices and pharmacists have asked people not to call them to make vaccine appointments at this stage, but to wait to be contacted.
Vaccine tourists flocked to Florida
Florida, one of the first states to make the vaccine available to everyone age 65 and over, hasn't experienced 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, many people flew into the Sunshine State for their shot from other states, and even from other countries, like Argentina and Canada, reported the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
That loophole is now well and truly closed. According to CNN, on January 19, 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 is a relief to so-called "snowbirds"—people who live in Florida in 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."
Vaccine tourism across the US
In other parts of the US, some form of "vaccine tourism" is happening. Mark and Connie Wallace, who live in Shelby County, Alabama, told CNN affiliate WBMA they drove almost two hours to Carroll County, Georgia, to get vaccinated at a Publix pharmacy.
"They knew that we were coming from out of state and they said that that was fine," said Connie, who is 68 and has underlying health issues related to her heart, she told the station. "So we didn't feel like we were pushing anybody else out, which we didn't want to do."
People from neighboring states can also travel to North Carolina to get the coronavirus vaccine, according to the state's Department of Health and Human Services. The lack of strict residency requirements means somebody from South Carolina or other neighboring states who are hospital workers or in the 75 year-plus age group can 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.
Many states let you check your eligibility for the vaccine online, and if you're not yet eligible, you can register to be notified when it's your turn 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 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), you must provide proof of employment in the State of New York. If you're eligible on the basis of age (i.e. are 65 or over), you must produce proof of age and proof of residence in New York.
Nobody knows for sure when everybody who wants the COVID-19 vaccine will get it. In December, Dr. Anthony Fauci told MSNBC that the US could see the "overwhelming majority of the population vaccinated" by the second quarter of 2021. With more infectious variants of the virus spreading, it really is a time to keep non-essential travel to a minimum—and that includes "vaccine tourism." If you can sit tight for another few weeks or months, you might find that you get your shot, exactly when—and where—you're supposed to.
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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