In Florida, vaccines are now being administered only to residents, following reports of vaccine tourism.
Vaccines have become a top priority for the world, with more than 71.3 million people inoculated in 57 countries. In the U.S. alone, 24.5 million doses have been administered, but the rollout hasn’t been smooth. Apart from the fact that the federal government let states handle their vaccination campaigns, there have been miscommunications, lack of infrastructure, and logistic errors. The result? The vaccination drive has been slow and frustrating for Americans.
In Florida, things got difficult for the elderly. The state has the second largest population of seniors in the country, so people over the age of 65 are being prioritized over essential workers (healthcare workers and long-term care workers are also eligible for the vaccine in Florida). The uncoordinated effort received backlash when seniors had to wait in long lines, camp out overnight, and drive long distances only to be turned away. But amidst all the confusion of how and where to get vaccinated and who can get it, tourists started flocking to the state because they didn’t need to show proof of residence to get the vaccine.
Messy Roll Out
Florida has 4.4 million people who are 65 and older, and demand is higher than supply. The phone lines were exhausted by desperate residents who wanted to get the shot, so the state health officials started employing Eventbrite—an event ticketing platform for concerts and events, where employees have been scheduling Zoom sessions these days.
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Broward Health in Broward County got booked through till February, just hours after opening appointments. In Lee County, it was their first-come, first-serve policy that set an example in what not to do while planning vaccination drives. Senior citizens waited in lines for hours, even overnight, draped in jackets, to get vaccinated, but the doses were out before their turn came.
Right now, there is no central system to make appointments for vaccination (it is in the works), and each county is doing its own thing. Vaccine tourism is adding fuel to the fire and making people furious with the inefficient way of distribution.
Out of 1.27 million people who have been vaccinated in the state, at least 41,000 were non-residents (including snowbirds, who come to the state in winter months). Imagine waiting in lines for hours or trying the hotline constantly, or making sense of the different rules to make an appointment, only to be unsuccessful, then reading about a wealthy traveler from Argentina who got the vaccine without a hassle by simply showing up. The Washington Post reported that wealthy donors flouted rules and jumped the queue in a nursing home in West Palm Beach, while hospitals in Miami have vaccinated board members, too. People from other states also drove down to get vaccinated, while many were planning vacation trips, news reports revealed.
No Tourists, Please!
Governor of Florida Ron DeSantis, who faced harsh criticism for downplaying the virus, has made it clear that the vaccine is for Florida residents, not tourists. In a news conference, he said you have to be living in Florida full-time or part-time to be eligible for the vaccine. He included snowbirds, too, saying, “Now we do have part-time residents who are here all winter. They go to doctors here or whatever, that’s fine. What we don’t want is tourists, foreigners. We want to put seniors first, but we obviously want to put people that live here first in line.”
Imagine waiting in lines for hours or trying the hotline constantly, or making sense of the different rules to make an appointment, only to be unsuccessful, then reading about a wealthy traveler from Argentina who got the vaccine without a hassle by simply showing up.
Earlier, the officials had stated that the vaccine was a federal asset and anyone could get it. However, State General Surgeon Scott A. Rivkees has signed an executive order on the heels of the governor’s remarks that put it on paper that the doses are for residents of the Sunshine State. So, now people need to show a driver’s license with a Florida address or proof that they rent or own a house, or get utility bills there.
Canadians who come down to spend winter months in Florida will be eligible to get the vaccine if they meet other criteria, which may save the state hospital beds in case they catch the virus. However, it means that more doses will be needed. The new advisory has also raised concerns about migrant workers and the homeless, and a valid question is being asked: How will an overburdened administration verify and implement this?
There are challenges in sight, even with the new rule, but vaccine tourism at this point when the state is overwhelmed is a terrible idea. Florida has reported 1.67 million cases and over 25,000 deaths, and it has enough doses to only inoculate a fraction of its population. The race is on to get herd immunity before the virus takes more lives in the country, and with President Joe Biden promising a better response and more involvement from the federal government, it seems possible.