Vaccine tourism: People are flocking to Florida for their COVID-19 inoculations

Korin Miller
·6 min read

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is speaking out after reports surfaced of outsiders traveling to the state to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

“We’re a transient state,” DeSantis said Monday during a press conference. “You’ll have people that will be here and it’s not like they’re just on vacation for two weeks.” While DeSantis said that it would be difficult for the state to turn away people like snowbirds who travel to the area for extended periods of time, he also said that state officials are “discouraging” tourists who visit Florida just to get vaccinated.

Seniors, who are 65 and over, wait in line at the Department of Health Sarasota COVID-19 vaccination clinic in Sarasota, Florida, U.S. January 4, 2021. REUTERS/Octavio Jones
People 65 and over wait in line at the Department of Health Sarasota COVID-19 vaccination clinic in Sarasota, Fla. (Octavio Jones/Reuters)

DeSantis has spoken openly about his state’s success with vaccinating people who are 65 and up. “We have more seniors that have been given shots today than any other state,” he said in a press conference on Saturday. He also pointed out that 60 percent of all vaccines in the state “have gone to elderly,” adding, “Most other states, it’s under 25 percent.”

“We’ve said from the beginning that the State of Florida is committed to prioritizing our seniors 65+ for vaccine distribution,” DeSantis wrote on Twitter. “It’s an effective approach that the federal government is now mirroring.”

That strategy has attracted plenty of people to the state. Some of those who have been open about their vaccine tourism to Florida have faced public backlash, including former Citigroup chairman Richard Parsons. Parsons went on CNBC’s Squawk Box last week and shared that he traveled from New York to Florida to get vaccinated. “It’s orderly and sensible,” he said. “I don’t know how Florida got the march on everyone else. But, you go online. You make an appointment. You get an appointment.”

But some others are still talking about their personal experience with vaccine tourism.

Currently the Florida Department of Health says that it is “prioritizing persons 65 years of age and older and health care personnel with direct patient contact and residents and staff of long term care facilities.” But, the agency says, while the state has many sites that are providing COVID-19 vaccines to people who are eligible, supplies are limited and appointments may not be available. “Demand for the COVID-19 vaccine is far in excess of the supply the state has received so far,” it says online.

A spokesperson for the Florida Department of Health did not respond to Yahoo Life’s request for comment.

Why is this happening?

The way vaccine rollouts are set up in most states leaves the system open to abuse, Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician and a professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Yahoo Life. “Currently, we are relying on the honor system so people don’t skip ahead,” he says. But, he adds, this doesn’t always work. “I am sure this will change,” Watkins says.

Vaccine tourism between states “shows how a lack of leadership on a national level has impacted rollout of the vaccine,” infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life.

Dr. Stanley Weiss, professor at the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and the Department of Biostatistics and Epidemiology at the Rutgers School of Public Health, agrees.

“The federal government left things to states and local areas instead of coming up with a comprehensive policy. Some of the consequences of that are varying ways to register for the vaccine and varying policies as to who is eligible — that’s left the public confused,” Weiss tells Yahoo Life. “People are spending an awful lot of time trying to figure out where the vaccine is available and how to get answers. That is a major problem. Additional federal oversight would be helpful.”

Some areas just weren’t prepared for an efficient rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. “A lot of locations have had startup problems, more so than I would have anticipated,” he says. “Many health departments, sites and small community hospitals didn’t do quite as much planning as was required. Some had a sense that this would be like a flu vaccine campaign — quick and easy. But it turned out to be much more complicated than that.”

What do experts think of vaccine tourism as a whole?

Adalja warns that traveling to get a vaccine could “create a mishmash of supply and demand” in certain areas, given that vaccines are allocated to states based on their adult population.

Schaffner also stresses that vaccine tourism may not be as easy or safe as it sounds for everyone, even among those who have the means to travel. “For some, vaccine tourism is as simple as getting in the car and driving across state lines,” he says. “But for others who have to travel further, they’re going to encounter potential exposures to COVID-19 during lengthy travel.”

People may find that they have trouble booking an appointment for vaccination once they arrive in an area, Schaffner points out. “There may be misrepresentations about how easy it is to receive the vaccine once you arrive at your destination,” he says.

There is a silver lining here, though. “It’s nice to see that some people are really anxious to get the vaccine to protect themselves,” Weiss says. “We need as many people as possible to get vaccinated.”

But while Adalja doesn’t exactly encourage people to engage in vaccine tourism, he says that he understands why some people are doing it. “The vaccine rollout has been so bad,” he says. “I wouldn’t fault anyone for doing this.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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