'Vaccination vacations': International travelers booking U.S. trips to get COVID-19 shots

James McGinnis, Bucks County Courier Times
·5 min read

As a plastics process and tooling engineer, Homayoun Khalili designs single-use medical tubes used in the high-speed production of COVID-19 vaccines.

As a father, Khalili can't wait to bring his son and daughter-in-law to the U.S. from Germany to get an American-made COVID-19 vaccine.

Welcome the newest trend in international travel — vaccination vacations.

Optional for a fortunate few with money or connections, international travel for vaccines could be a double-edged sword, say public health and travel experts.

More international travel is expected this summer. Vaccines are drawing visitors from countries where supplies are scarce, noted Bruce Rosenberg, chief operations officer at HotelPlanner.com. That benefits struggling airlines, hotels and restaurants.

Horsham Square Pharmacist Tom Friedman, adminsters a Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine to Homayoun Khalili, of McLean, Va., an employee at New Age Industries in Southampton, on Friday, April 9, 2021.
Horsham Square Pharmacist Tom Friedman, adminsters a Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine to Homayoun Khalili, of McLean, Va., an employee at New Age Industries in Southampton, on Friday, April 9, 2021.

At the same time, the CDC wants everyone to delay any international travel. According to the CDC, "even fully-vaccinated travelers" are at increased risk for getting and possibly spreading new COVID-19 variants.

Vaccine inequities become "more grotesque everyday," World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus said at a recent press conference.

Yet, it's already happening.

"The first wave is American expats living abroad who are coming back to the U.S. for their shots," said David Levine, an author and consultant on travel and tourism trends. "Some are staying for weeks to get the second shot, some are returning to the U.S. twice."

"Vaccine tourism is most definitely a trend and I believe the trend will continue," said Rose Gray, of the Wisconsin-based Fox World Travel. "States and even counties determine their own distribution system for the COVID-19 vaccines. We are seeing wealthy Mexican citizens who have dual citizenship or family ties to the United States crossing the border to get vaccinated."

American advantage

For all the frustration with the U.S. vaccine rollout, America is far ahead most other nations on vaccines.

In fact, the U.S. could soon be among just a handful of countries where the majority of the population is fully vaccinated against COVID in the coming months.

As of April 13, 22% of the U.S. population was fully vaccinated, putting it fourth worldwide, according to the international vaccine database established by Oxford University.

Israel leads the world in vaccinations, surpassing 50%. The U.K. is at 11%.

Canada has vaccinated just 829,067, or 2%, of the population. Mexico has vaccinated 2 million, or 1.9%, of its citizens.

The European region was estimated to be at 5%.

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'Vaccination vacations' already starting

Some of the first "vaccination vacations" were by Canadians, who had second homes in Florida, said Rosenberg.

"People who have second homes in the United States are either traveling back or staying in hotels in places like Florida where the vaccines are more prevalent and there are fewer restrictions," said Rosenberg. "There are also a lot of direct flights to Florida. The majority of people who are coming back are from Mexico or Canada."

Rosenberg believes airports and hotels will be busy this year as people eagerly plan long-awaited getaways — and regardless of vaccination.

At the same time, if vaccines become scarce, people may go to greater lengths to get them, including international flights.

The Cayman Islands, a self-governing British territory, has received enough vaccine to open supplies to all persons ages 16 and older, officials announced in March. The Caribbean paradise was "awash" in vaccines, the Times of London first reported in January,

Early on, Florida wasn't restricting vaccine access to state residents. That changed mid-January amid concerns about out-of-state vacationers.

Neither the CDC nor the Pennsylvania Department of Health could be reached for comment.

Still, some travel agencies are advertising vaccine packages, although they do not promise that travelers will actually be able to receive a vaccine in the U.S. once they get here. Among them, Zenith Tours of India lists on its website "Vaccine Tourism."

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Currently, international travel to the United States is partially restricted.

All U.S. passengers ages 2 and older must present to the airline evidence of a negative COVID-19 test administered within three days of entering the country.

Airlines transporting passengers to the U.S. must deny boarding to anyone without such a test, according to the U.S. State Department.

A future family reunion

An engineer at NewAge Industries in Upper Southampton, Khalili got vaccinated as a member of the team that develops products critical to the medical supply chain.

As part of the federal Operation Warp Speed, NewAge was tapped to produce the plastic components used in hospital ventilators and tubes used to produce vaccines.

Considered so critical to the supply chain, the company was requested to have two physical locations for production of medical tubing and supplies.

A second location — now under construction in Warminster — will ensure that production is never halted by an event at the main facility.

Khalili hopes his son and daughter-in-law will be in the United States by this summer to get a vaccine.

As of April 13, some 5.2 million Germans, about 6% of the population, was fully vaccinated, according to Oxford University's global vaccine tracker.

"In Germany, he will not get the vaccine until sometime next year," said Khalili. "Germany is far behind the U.S. with vaccines."

This article originally appeared on Bucks County Courier Times: Vaccine tourism: International travelers visiting U.S. for COVID shots