What Are “Vaccine Tourists”? Here’s What To Know

PORTER RANCH, CA – MARCH 15: PORTER RANCH, CA – MARCH 15: Dylan McDougall, 18, of Granada Hills, receives the Pfizer vaccine from medical assistant Leyda Sampayo during a two-day Center For Family Health & Education pop-up COVID-19 vaccine site at the Shepherd Church parking lot in Porter Ranch as more people become eligible for the vaccine on Monday, March 15, 2021. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

A year into the global coronavirus pandemic, things are looking up for many people as vaccines have become widely available across the country. But as a result of that access, the U.S. has also seen a surge of “vaccine tourism.” As international demand for the vaccine is on the rise, tens of thousands of people are traveling to the U.S. for a COVID vaccine in hopes of speeding up their own timelines for getting back to some version of normalcy. 

There are plenty of reasons why people are coming to the U.S. to get their dose of a COVID vaccine, and most travel has come from Latin America, where just 3% of people have been fully vaccinated, according to Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) director Carissa Etienne. “We still have a long way to go to ensure that everyone is protected,” Etienne added. She went on to describe vaccine tourism not as a solution to its distribution, but rather “a symptom of how unequally vaccines are being distributed in the Americas.”

Travel to the U.S. has mainly occurred between Mexico and states like Texas and Florida, both of which have reported a surplus in vaccine supplies, which is a norm across much of the country. Some epidemiologists and public health advocates have been critical of the U.S. and say the government has “hoarded” vaccines that are desperately needed in other countries. 

To paint a clearer picture of the situation: The U.S. has secured 1.2 billion doses of coronavirus vaccines and has vaccinated more than a quarter of Americans. This means that even if the country’s entire population of 330 million people was fully vaccinated, there would still be a half-billion surplus of vaccines. In other words, while things might be looking up for people living in the U.S., many other countries are falling behind as a result. And the coronavirus knows no borders: As long as vaccine supplies are limited in low-income countries, there is the continued risk of outbreaks, infections, and a continued mass death toll.  

“If the vaccine does not come to you, it is time to go the vaccine,” Flavio San Martin of Peru told CNN. “I’m 46-years old and I didn’t think I could be vaccinated in my country before December. I have seen people dying getting closer and closer to home,” he said. San Martin traveled to Durham, North Carolina with his family in April, where he received two doses of the Moderna vaccine. Peru is one of the worst-hit countries in the world, with more than 68,000 COVID deaths and a population of just 32 million people. 

Still, international travel for vaccines is often reserved for people with means. Pamela Card, who flew from Mexico City to Miami for a four-day trip, paid $500 for the flight and accommodations. “Not everyone can do it…with the 10,000 Mexican pesos I paid, a family in Mexico can buy food for a month,” she told CNN.  

According to a report from the Economist Intelligence Unit, 85 of the poorest countries will not have widespread access to coronavirus vaccines before 2023. For Americans, a year of social isolation and a death toll of more than 590,000 people was a collective trauma we couldn’t have ever prepared for. But the situation is even more dire in countries with lesser access to the same vaccines that have pulled us out of the worst of the pandemic. For many, the pandemic hasn’t ended. 

“There’s a huge disconnect growing where in some countries with the highest vaccination rates, there appears to be a mindset that the pandemic is over, while others are experiencing huge waves of infection,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization, said earlier this month. 

While many might remain hesitant about the concept of vaccine tourism, it is ultimately an imperfect solution to helping people in other countries with less access to vaccines — or even COVID protections — finally reach immunity.

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