‘Vaccine tourism’ is becoming a big thing in the U.S. as people search the country for Covid vaccines

Jan 22, 2021 | 29 comments

Americans are hitting the road again. But they’re not traveling to Chicago on business or to Las Vegas and Disney World for vacations. They’re going in search of vaccines.

People wait in line at a vaccination center in Fort Myers, Florida.

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.

Vaccine-seeking tourists are showing up in Miami, 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.

Vaccination centers in non-tourist destinations such as Fort Myers, Tallahassee and Gainesville have started to ask inoculation seekers to show proof of residency.

More than 17 million doses have been administered 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.

Health experts also have concerns about people traveling for immunization.

“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.”

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.

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.”

Credit: Bloomberg