“My mother is 80 years old, and since we were invited to a wedding in Florida, I took the trip for both of us to get vaccinated.
The story of this Venezuelan who prefers not to give her name is more and more common: that of travelers from Latin American countries who are vaccinated against the coronavirus in the United States.
“Everything was very simple. We just had to show our passport and they vaccinated us without even having to get out of the car at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami,” she told BBC News Mundo (Spanish news service of the BBC).
In the northern United States, in the city of Boston, another 62-year-old Venezuelan did not have much difficulty either. “I signed up on the Massachusetts Department of Health page and a few days later they gave me the vaccine without asking for any documents.” She received the Pfizer vaccine at the Hynes Convention Center.
“My husband insisted that I come and pick him up. It is really a matter of life and death and I do not know when the vaccines will arrive in my country or if they will deliver the vaccines well in Venezuela. And it was so easy. here …”
But it’s not just Venezuelans. In Mexico and Colombia, there is a proliferation of travel agencies that promote organized trips that have access to the vaccine as the main attraction, still far from the reach of the majority in many Latin American countries due to the slow pace of the distribution in the region.
According to the Mexican Association of Travel Agencies, there are already around 500 companies offering packages that include a flight to the United States, airport pickup, accommodation, and transfer to a vaccination center – the all for around 20,000 pesos (around 1,000 USD or more 5,000 $)
In major airports in the southern United States, such as Miami, Orlando, Houston or Los Angeles, vaccine tourism is already a visible phenomenon.
This is also a consequence of the progress of the vaccination campaign in the United States, where more than 53% of the population has already received at least one dose of the vaccine, a percentage only exceeded by Israel and the United Kingdom.
The data contrast with 6.1% in Colombia, where the authorities were forced to decree new lockdowns to contain the spread of the epidemic. In other countries, the percentage of people vaccinated is also low: 9.5% in Mexico and 1% in Venezuela.
In the region, few exceptional cases, such as Uruguay and Chile, come close to the US figures.
“Latin America is the region that currently needs vaccines the most,” says Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) director Carissa Etienne.
It is a problem?
When the growing influx of Latin Americans – including famous figures whose vaccinations sparked controversy – became news in the press, some states announced measures to ensure that only residents receive the vaccine.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has announced that the state will require proof of residency to apply the vaccine.
But the Secretary of State for Health told BBC Mundo there were exceptions.
Since Florida has many temporary residents, mostly seniors, officials say they “can’t limit” vaccinations to people who don’t live there all year.
On Friday (04/30), the state’s general practitioner, Scott Rivkees, issued an instruction recommending extending vaccination to all non-Florida residents who are there “providing goods and services.”
Latin American tourists vaccinated in Florida consulted by BBC Mundo said proof of residency was not required.
And even local politicians seem to have seen the new “vaccine tourism” as an opportunity to somewhat offset the drop in visitor numbers caused by the pandemic. This is the case of the mayor of North Miami Beach, Anthony F. DeFillipo, who even suggested that foreigners come to the city in search of the vaccine.
Three days later, the town hall said in a statement that it is up to the State Department of Health to define the criteria for administering the vaccine.
Mary Jo Trepka, an epidemiology expert at the International University of Florida, told BBC News World that “in the United States there is a sufficient stock of vaccines and the low percentage of doses that Latin American travelers take do not. shouldn’t be a problem. [para os demais americanos]”.
“In fact, it is in the interest of the United States that the population of our neighboring countries be vaccinated and, from a public health perspective, the problem is: why is there not enough vaccines in these countries, ”says Trepka, who accuses US President Joe Biden, of greater involvement in the Covax program and other initiatives to help less advantaged countries.
The White House announced on April 26 that it will send 60 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to countries in difficulty “as soon as they become available”. But he did not specify who will be favored.
‘Is that you? Which one did you receive?
By Marcos González, BBC Mexico correspondent
I’m boarding an American Airlines flight from Miami to Mexico City. Although it is early in the morning, there are many heated conversations. Three young Mexican men aged up to 30 talk about their trip to the United States. They greet other Mexican acquaintances who board the plane.
“And did you arrive yesterday and leave today? Wow, you’re crazy. And which one did you take? Me, Moderna’s,” one of them said, in a suit and perfectly groomed, to the one of the friends who is walking down the hall looking for his seat.
It is no secret to the passengers or the crew that among the countless attractions to travel to the United States, there is now also the possibility of receiving the vaccine there. And there are many who exchange tips on how to do this quickly and comfortably.
For Trepka, the downside of vaccine tourism in Latin America is that it “exacerbates inequalities in the countries of origin” because whoever can travel to the United States is the one who can pay and who is allowed to enter. which excludes a large part of the region’s population.
The fact that not everyone can afford it explains the outcry over known cases of celebrities who have traveled to the United States to be vaccinated, such as former Peruvian presidential candidate Hernando de Soto, who has initially denied receiving the vaccine.
Trepka, however, doesn’t blame the tourists. “I think I would do the same if I were them.”