Getting a coronavirus vaccine these days is tougher than booking a ticket for a popular rock concert.
“The rush for these spaces is just like a Rolling Stones concert,” said George Wolff, a 71-year-old Canadian who lives in the U.S. state of Florida.
Wolff and his wife Gigi Guthrie drove 60 miles outside of their home county in Tampa Bay to get the highly coveted Moderna vaccine last Thursday.
“Boy, it feels like a weight’s been lifted from our shoulders, even though we’re only on the first dose,” Wolff, a retired journalist, told Global News.
His wife Guthrie, 73, booked the appointment online after checking several county websites for any openings. They were able to get a slot at a drive-thru vaccination site in Pasco County at about an hour and a half’s drive from their house in St. Petersburg.
“It’s certainly worth it because the peace of mind and our spirits have been so elevated that we’re ready for the second one when it comes,” she told Global News.
However, their experience was much smoother than it has been for many others, who had to camp out overnight waiting for hours in long queues to get the shot.
With the second-largest elderly population in the country, Florida is prioritizing people aged 65 and above, who began receiving the coronavirus vaccines last week.
“Anyone who can prove they are 65 years of age and older is eligible to receive a vaccine at no cost in Florida,” a spokesperson at the Florida Department of Health told Global News on Monday.
It is one of the few U.S. states that has started rolling out vaccines to people beyond the key groups of front-line health-care workers and long-term care homes. And no proof of residency or citizenship seems to be required, which means Canadian snowbirds and other older seasonal visitors are also able to get vaccinated.
Meanwhile, in Canada, vaccines are currently being given out to only those seniors living in long-term care facilities.
As of Jan. 3, Florida had vaccinated a total of 255,808 people, including 74,242 seniors aged 65 and above, according to the latest data from the state’s health department.
In contrast, Canada’s largest province of Ontario had administered 42,419 doses through Monday.
While some places require an advance booking online or over the phone, others, like in Lee County in southwest Florida, offered free vaccines on a first-come, first-served basis, leading seniors to flock to the vaccination sites.
Snowbirds Perry Cohen and wife Rose, who flew down to Deerfield Beach, Fla., from Toronto at the beginning of December, were set to get the Moderna vaccine on Tuesday.
After several unsuccessful attempts with the Broward County website being down, the couple were finally able to book an appointment online through their community on Friday.
They are among the first at their gated community for seniors to be getting inoculated at the premises.
“Well, I figure our timing is good. When we left we had no idea that we can get the vaccine here, but we wanted to come down for the climate, the safety, we’re able to exercise, we’re able to get out,” Cohen, 74, told Global News.
“It’s a great way to start the New Year and we’re anxious to get it.”
Risking COVID-19 for vaccine?
Martin Firestone, a travel insurance broker in Toronto, told Global News that he has recently received “a lot of calls” from his Canadian snowbird clients currently in Florida showing interest and inquiring about getting vaccinated there.
Most are wondering if there will be insurance coverage in case of an adverse reaction to the vaccine, which remains unclear, Firestone said.
“If you’re 65 and over and have some sort of ownership of a residence in Florida … then you are eligible for the vaccine and that’s a pretty important happening in the sense that you’ll be waiting a lot longer sitting here in Ontario,” he said.
In fact, some snowbirds are going to Florida for a month for the sole purpose of getting the coronavirus vaccine, Firestone said.
“I have (a few) clients flying south this week to get the vaccine that is being made available to them through the community they live in,” he said.
“It’s bizarre that retirement communities are offering them just like flu shots.”
Firestone said the vaccine has just given seniors, who usually fly down south to escape Canada’s harsh winter cold, “another reason to travel that they didn’t have before”, even though he would not recommend it.
More than 1.3 million people have been infected with coronavirus in Florida and at least 22,090 residents have died from COVID-19. Hospitalizations have risen by 12 per cent over the past week, according to The COVID Tracking Project.
Travelling amid a pandemic is a risk for anyone, but more so for the elderly, who are at a greater risk from COVID-19.
Access to hospitals already filled with coronavirus patients is also a concern.
“The fear is if you get sick from just any one of the million and one things you can get sick from … I’m worried that the hospitals are filling to capacity, ICUs, emergencies and the risk of you not being treated properly and imminently could be a real problem,” said Firestone.
Winter travel is up
Those who are already down there are hoping to get vaccinated as soon as possible.
Classical guitarist Liona Boyd, who splits her time between Toronto and Palm Beach, Fla. and has dual citizenship, is among them.
The 71-year-old award-winning musician and singer said she has tried booking an appointment online but the city’s website kept crashing because of the large volume of traffic.
Boyd says she is still waiting to find out when she will be able to get the vaccine but remains optimistic.
“It was scary enough just coming down, so I’d rather just stay put until I get vaccinated. And I don’t care which vaccine,” she told Global News.
Since March, Health Canada and provincial health authorities have advised against non-essential travel.
Firestone, president of Travel Secure, says the number of travel requests “significantly dropped” in 2020 — at 30 per cent compared to the previous year — but winter trips have “picked up tremendously” over the last couple of months.
Still, many are fearful about travelling even with the added incentive of getting a COVID-19 vaccine.
Ontario couple Hascal Rosen, 87 and wife Sandra, 79, who have been visiting Florida during winter for the last 30 years, decided not to make the trip this time around over concerns about COVID-19.
Rosen said they will not entertain the thought of travelling just to get the vaccine as they won’t feel comfortable without their family doctor or family by their side in case either of them had an adverse reaction.
“It would be a very foolish decision on ours or on anyone’s part just to go down to Florida or Arizona … thinking you could be next in line to get the inoculation because there are tens of thousands of Americans in front of you,” the 87-year-old retiree from Toronto said.