Shortly before the Covid-19 vaccine made its debut last month in the United States, an Indian travel agency called Gem Tours & Travels announced it was registering customers for an exciting new package: a four-day trip from Mumbai to New York City with a coronavirus shot thrown in for about $2,000.
"Vaccine tourism," Nimesh Shah, the company's business development specialist, called it.
“We are only taking registrations of Indians with a valid 10-year U.S. visa,” Shah told ThePrint. “We are not taking any money but just collecting data for the moment. We are proud to have coined the term ‘vaccine tourism.’”
Soon, competitors like the Kolkata-based Zenith Holidays were registering customers for vaccination packages.
Pronab Sarkar, president of Indian Association of Tour Operators, condemned the companies for peddling these junkets. But Zenith Holidays, which generally does not offer travel packages to the U.S., still has on its website a "Vaccine Tourism" tab where customers can fill out a registration form, click send, and within minutes an email from the company pops up in their inbox promising more information soon.
“Thank you for showing interest in our Holiday,” the email states.
Just how many Indians signed up for such a vaccination junket to the U.S. was not immediately clear because neither Shah nor anyone from Zenith Holidays responded to several emails from NBC News or an inquiry posed via the registration form.
But the very idea that somebody with money but no immediate access to the scarce Covid-19 vaccine could fly to another country to get a shot was raising both outrage and ethical questions.
In Florida, reports of rich Canadians, Brazilians and Venezuelans, as well as people from other states, crashing the Sunshine State to get a shot prompted the state’s surgeon general to sign a public health advisory last week requiring vaccination providers to ensure that every person who gets the shot lives in the state.
Argentinian celebrity lawyer Ana Rosenfeld, who was visiting family in Miami last month, got her first shot in a town near Tampa, some 270-plus miles away.
“I always wanted to get the vaccine,” Rosenfeld, 66, told the Argentine publication Teleshow. “If I would have had the possibility of doing it in Argentina, I would have done it.”
But wealthy Americans who live outside Florida have also been able to get vaccinated in the state. Richard Parsons, the former chairman and CEO of Time Warner, described on national TV how he flew down from New York to Florida to get a shot.
“It’s orderly and sensible,” Parsons, 72, said while appearing on "Squawk Box" on CNBC. “I don’t know how Florida got the march on everyone else. But you go online. You make an appointment. You get an appointment.”
Neither Rosenfeld nor Parsons had to pull any strings or call in any favors. They were able to get the shot because the executive order that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed just before Christmas gave first dibs on vaccinations to people ages 65 and older but did not specify that they had to actually live in the state.
That changed Thursday when Dr. Scott Rivkees, Florida's surgeon general, signed a public health advisory that requires vaccination providers to ensure that every person who gets a shot in the state is a Florida resident.
“Vaccine tourism is not permitted,” Jared Moskowitz, Florida’s director of emergency management, said in a statement after hearing that Canadians were flying to his state to get vaccinated. “It’s abhorrent, people should not be flying here to get a vaccine and flying out.”
But already nearly 40,000 people, whose home address was listed as “out of state,” have been vaccinated in Florida, state data shows.
And the Florida Department of Health is now investigating allegations that MorseLife Health System, an expensive elder care center in West Palm Beach, gave Covid-19 shots meant for residents and staff to members of the Palm Beach Country Club and wealthy donors with ties to New York developers Bill and David Mack.
"To go under that rubric when you're not a resident and not a staff member, that's definitely going outside what the guidance is and what the program is for," DeSantis said this month after the story broke.
Residency requirements are hard to enforce because many Floridians are snowbirds who live part of the year in the north, said Dr. Marissa J. Levine, a public health professor at the University of South Florida who previously served as Virginia’s state health commissioner for four years.
Also, the slow rollout of the Covid-19 vaccinations has also revealed how little work both the Trump administration and the local governments did to prepare what Levine called “an ethical framework” for distributing the shots.
“Right now, it’s a scarce resource and demand is outstripping supply,” she said. “If you don’t have that kind of framework, people with power and money will do everything they can to cut the line. Clearly it’s not right that people with power and money get the vaccine before others.”
And yet, they’re trying.
Dr. Joseph Varon of the United Memorial Medical Center in Houston said recently that people from abroad began reaching out to him for help with getting vaccinated last month and it hasn’t stopped.
“I get text messages every five minutes of people from all over the world, 'Uh, hey! Can you set us up with the vaccine?'” Varon said.
In some cases, they’re succeeding.
Dr. Gabriel Rodriguez Weber, a physician in Mexico City, told KPRC 2 Investigates in Houston that “without a doubt, many are doing it.”
“All of those with economic means or that have a contact,” he said, when asked about the 10 Mexican nationals he knew of who flew to Houston, San Diego, Miami and New York City to get coronavirus vaccines.
More than a dozen Argentinian corporate executives have been able to get vaccinated in Florida, The Sun-Sentinel newspaper reported, citing an account from the Buenos Aires newspaper Clarín.
“It’s free and it’s not necessary to be a resident, only to be 65 years old and not have received any other vaccinations in the past 14 days,” the newspaper said.
As for the Canadians, that country’s National Post newspaper reported that elderly residents were flying to Florida to get vaccines because DeSantis had given first priority to people ages 65 and over.
Therese Gagnon, a retired school teacher and Quebec resident who winters in Florida, said nobody asked her if she was a full-time resident when she showed up at a drive-thru vaccination center in Fort Lauderdale.
“No proof necessary, just proof of age, which is great since we live here part of the year and we could infect our neighbors and friends,” she told the newspaper. “The governor made a very wise decision.”