When the U.S. state of Florida opened its coronavirus vaccines to anyone above the age of 65 earlier this month, Canadian seniors who were already hunkered down in the southern state for the winter jumped at the opportunity.
Snowbirds Perry and Rose Cohen were among them. The Toronto couple will get their second shot of the Moderna vaccine on Tuesday.
While the Cohens, like many other Snowbirds, own property in the state, there have also been reports of non-residents and foreign nationals coming to Florida specifically to get a vaccine.
Following backlash from residents and officials, the state issued new rules last week requiring proof of at least part-time residency, with a utility bill or lease agreement, for example, to be eligible for the vaccine.
“To just kind of come in from another country or whatever, we don’t support that, and we’re not going to allow that,” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said in a news conference in Jupiter, Fla., on Jan. 19. “We’re not doing ‘vaccine tourism.'”
Martin Firestone, a travel insurance broker based in Toronto, said the switch in policy would affect those Canadians who were planning to stay at rented apartments or with their friends.
“Now they’re out of luck because they were thinking of getting the vaccine while they were down there,” he told Global News.
Since March last year, Health Canada has advised against non-essential travel. But that has not stopped Canadians, controversially several politicians, from taking trips abroad.
On Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reiterated his call, urging Canadians not to travel outside or within the country.
“No one should be taking a vacation abroad right now,” Trudeau said during a press conference outside Rideau Cottage, Ottawa on Friday.
“If you’ve got one planned, cancel it and don’t book a trip for spring break.”
While medical tourism is not a new phenomenon, travelling to another country to get a vaccine during a pandemic raises several concerns. Not least of those is the risk of exposure to the virus while travelling.
Firestone, who has advised his clients not to travel, said not being able to have access to hospitals in a foreign country in case of an emergency is a major worry, especially for his older, more vulnerable clients.
According to the Medical Tourism Index, Canada ranks as the top country in the list of healthcare destinations, followed by Singapore, Japan, Spain and the United Kingdom.
In the initial stages of Canada’s nationwide rollout that started in mid-December, front-line healthcare workers, long-term care residents and staff, the elderly and the Indigenous communities are being prioritized.
With doses only open to high-priority citizens and residents, it’s highly unlikely people would be getting on a plane to come to Canada for the vaccine anytime soon.
There is a mandatory 14-day quarantine, and a negative-test requirement that went into effect on Jan. 7.
In an emailed statement to Global News, Transport Canada said the new pre-test requirements for passengers seeking to fly to Canada from other countries has “not surprisingly” led to a “decline in future bookings, as the airlines themselves have noted publicly.”
Dubai ranks sixth on the Medical Tourism Index.
The city has already become a go-to destination for the super-rich, who have been flown in by Knightsbridge Circle, a prestigious luxury concierge service, to get inoculated.
A month-long vacation package costing an estimated $70,000 includes a first-class Emirates flight, accommodation in a sea-view apartment while you wait for your second dose, and a private vaccination, according to a report by The Telegraph in the U.K.
Stuart McNeill, founder of Knightsbridge Circle, told the British newspaper that approximately 20 per cent of members have already flown to Abu Dhabi and Dubai in the U.A.E to receive the vaccine.
McNeill said the two U.A.E cities are offering up private vaccinations of the Pfizer vaccine, and in India, the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.
“They land, have their first jab and wait for the second one,” he said. “We’ve got some people that are going to India for the whole time and others are talking about flying in, having the first jab, flying out to Madagascar, and then coming back for the second jab later.”
Meanwhile, some Indian travel agencies are reportedly advertising vaccine travel packages, including round-trips from India to the U.S. and U.K.
In a tweet, Mumbai-based company Gem Tours and Travels, says: “We are developing vaccine tourism.”
It is asking people to register with their name, email and mobile number and says everything will be done as per official U.S. permissions.
Nimesh Shah, head of B2B division of Gem Tours and Travels, told Reuters the company had registered more than 5,000 people who wanted to travel to the United States for the vaccine and had valid U.S. visas.
Kerry Bowman, a bioethicist at the University of Toronto, said it was “very ethically problematic” for people to be travelling to another country to get vaccinated amid limited supplies.
“There are ethical concerns and you’re dealing with a very different healthcare system that you may not know that much about,” he said.
However, as more doses become available, “vaccine tourism may start emerging all over the world,” Bowman added.
This will depend on the travel restrictions, what the situation is in your own country, and whether other countries will open up to private sales of vaccines.
Given the limited supply in the initial stages of the rollout, private companies and individuals have a small window of opportunity to get their hands early on the doses, if they wish to do so, said Anita Ho, an associate professor of bioethics and health services research at the University of British Columbia, in a previous interview with Global News.
The federal government is aiming to vaccinate all Canadians who wish to be vaccinated by September, but most people are not confident they will receive it imminently, recent polling showed.
According to an Ipsos survey conducted exclusively for Global News earlier this month, 13 per cent of Canadians think their turn will come by that September target, while 19 per cent believe they will have access to the vaccine before the end of March. And 18 per cent of Canadians think they will not be eligible to receive the vaccine this year.
“People may be much more encouraged to go to countries where there’s a massive rollout,” Bowman said.
“Now, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the right thing to do, but I could see this happening because Canadians are going to start to feel desperate.”
— with files from Global News’ Chris Jancelewicz