Latin American Vaccine Tourists Flock to Texas for Coveted COVID Jabs

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast / Photos Getty
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast / Photos Getty

Latin America’s monied and middle classes are flocking in ever-increasing numbers to Texas for a much-coveted vaccine jab, which remains elusive in their home countries.

María, a 38-year-old psychologist in Mexico City who spoke to The Daily Beast under a pseudonym, was tired of waiting for the government-run vaccination program to announce her age group. She also worried about her 68-year-old father who suffers high blood pressure and is overweight—both COVID-19 comorbidities—and was diagnosed with pericardial effusion.

So Maria decided to travel to San Antonio with her husband, father, and father-in-law for vaccinations. She stayed with friends, received her first dose of Pfizer on March 1, and returned three weeks later for her second.

“[The health-care workers] were super nice,” said Maria. “And we only had to give them our [Mexican] passports as identification.” Maria subsequently advised 15 friends on getting vaccinated in San Antonio.

“For me, it was worth pushing up the process and, having gone, a lot of friends—many, many friends—are now going, too,” she said. “Four really good friends went this weekend. And today we were making appointments for another friend.”

Although Mexico was the first country to receive vaccines in Latin America, its campaign subsequently sputtered due to production glitches, crushing demand, and a policy of not vaccinating all medical workers. Mexico has only fully vaccinated 2.6 percent of its population of 130 million—with much of Latin America vaccinating at the same rate.

Official figures on the number of Latin Americans heading north for vaccinations have not been reported, and—in an effort to avoid the wrath of a populist president quick to brand opponents as “snobs”—many prefer discretion when speaking of their vaccine tourism adventures. But the signs are all there: airfares to Texas from Mexican cities have surged, and WhatsApp groups dedicated to trading tips on getting vaccinated abroad have been formed in recent weeks, according to details shared with The Daily Beast.

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Texas has apparently become a particularly popular destination for vaccine tourists, likely because the state doesn’t require proof of residency for receiving a vaccination. University Health in San Antonio—where María received her vaccination—now allows patients to register for their jabs with a Canadian or Mexican address. With U.S. customs, Maria advises people to be truthful about their motives for their trip, saying, “The problem is when you lie and tell them, ‘I’m not here for a vaccination.’”

A 40-year-old restauranteur who owns a bakery and a breakfast cafe in Mexico City told The Daily Beast that he and his wife traveled to Dallas last week, where they received their first dose of the Moderna vaccine at a local Walmart. The restaurant owner requested anonymity because he didn’t want to jeopardize their appointments for the second doses in three weeks.

“It was super fast,” the restauranteur said during a phone interview Tuesday morning. “No one was ahead of us. From what I understand, a lot of people in Texas don’t want the vaccine.” He and his wife returned to Mexico City the same day—and local news outlets have also reported Mexicans flying in via private plane to Lubbock and Amarillo, where they are transported to a local CVS and a government-run vaccination site, respectively.

“I interact with a lot of people on a daily basis,” the restauranteur said. “I want the vaccine to protect my family. Flying to Texas for the vaccine is not something people speak about publicly around here, but it’s happening. If anyone asks me, I would tell them to go.”

Mexico’s COVID czar Hugo López-Gatell says Mexicans aged 50 to 59 should be vaccinated by the end of June. But the restauranteur “didn’t want to wait anymore,” adding that he thought the “the Chinese and Russian vaccines” available in Mexico “are not as effective as the ones made in the U.S.”

The restauranteur said he has a friend who is charging Mexican citizens to sign them up for vaccine appointments via Walmart’s online registration website. “For me, he did it for free,” the 40-year-old said. “It’s a service business that he launched.”

María said she started thinking of a U.S. vaccine trip after hearing López-Gatell—who was stricken with the virus earlier this year and was seen strolling his neighborhood while still infected—muse about combining different vaccinations for the first and second doses of the vaccine. She didn’t like the sound of that.

Then there was the sense that her age group wouldn’t be called for many more months. “Obviously it wasn’t going to be our turn until 2022,” she said. “I’m 38 so it wouldn’t be my turn until the very end so if I had the chance to go [to the U.S.] I was going to do it. And it’s not illegal.”

Health analysts say it’s not unusual for the rich and influential to seek medical treatment in the United States—though many middle-class Mexicans are making the trip, too. A Monterrey professional soccer team traveled to Dallas earlier this month for vaccinations, according to Mexican media reports.

Jaime Square, a professor in the northeastern city of Tampico, got vaccinated in late December in El Paso, Texas. But he says it was luck; his son works as a physician and some of the staff at his clinic declined their vaccinations—leaving leftover doses for Square and his wife. He spent an extra month there to get the second dose of the Moderna vaccine.

Mexico’s vaccination campaign only arrived in Square’s hometown last week. Lines of seniors formed 24 hours in advance he said and the line of cars for the drive-through vaccines, he said, “was the longest I’ve ever seen.”

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An American expat in the Lake Chapala region—home to a large population of U.S. and Canadian retirees—described a similar situation. “It was an early morning disaster: long lines for four hours and some people were turned away. The system to verify people was slow and all that to get the Chinese vaccine,” the expat said. “Some gringos want to bail out of their first shot of Sinovac and switch.”

His wife traveled to Houston, where she used to live, to get her jab. The expat had booked an appointment at a Walmart pharmacy across the border in suburban San Diego for his own vaccination, but wasn’t able to get it after the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was pulled from the market.

The expat, a retired military officer, later found out about a drive-through vaccination operation in nearby Guadalajara and was promptly vaccinated. “It was the best you could get,” he said. “It took 60 minutes and there was a free Macarena dance show,” he said of the boisterous scene of staff dancing as they directed traffic.

But Mexico’s vaccine strategy has raised some uncomfortable questions aimed at Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who was vaccinated on television on April 20. He didn’t wear a mask during the vaccination, which was applied by military personnel. Health Secretary Hugo Alcocer hovered by him, also maskless, despite being a prominent physician prior to entering politics.

On the same day as Mexico’s president was vaccinated, the Health Secretariat released excess mortality figures, which put the country’s true COVID-19 death toll at 444,000. While the government has already started vaccinating teachers—a key constituency courted by politicians ahead of elections this summer—many workers in private health facilities are still waiting for their turn.

“Many of our parents and grandparents are vaccinated, which is great. But there are still first-line health-care personnel to be vaccinated... and you start vaccinating teachers? Leaves you wondering what this is all about,” said a neurologist in Monterrey, who plans on traveling to Texas for a vaccination when their U.S. visa is renewed. “We have the highest physician mortality due to COVID-19.”

The neurologist shared the details of a colleague, who said in a private Facebook post from her vaccination site in Texas that she had “begged to get a Sinovac dose in Mexico,” but was denied.

It’s not only Mexicans who are traveling to the U.S. for vaccinations. Carlos, a journalist from Colombia who spoke to The Daily Beast using an alias, bought a flight to Houston with his girlfriend in April to get his vaccine.

“I went to Texas cause they said it was legal there for ‘any person over 16.’ Unlike Florida where they said it was for residents only, said Carlos. “With the possibility that at some point the U.S. might cancel flights from Colombia, I decided to do it ASAP.”

He added: “If the government of Colombia is not going to get me a vaccine soon and I have the resources to get one, then I might as well solve the problem myself. I'm not going to sit around here waiting for the government to solve the problem for me.”

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