Shortly before the Covid-19 vaccine made its debut last month in the United States, an Indian travel agency called Gem Tours & Travels announced it was registering customers for an exciting new package: a four-day trip from Mumbai to New York City with a coronavirus shot thrown in for about $2,000.
“Vaccine tourism,” Nimesh Shah, the company’s business development specialist, called it.
“We are only taking registrations of Indians with a valid 10-year U.S. visa,” Shah told ThePrint. “We are not taking any money but just collecting data for the moment. We are proud to have coined the term ‘vaccine tourism.’”
Soon, competitors like the Kolkata-based Zenith Holidays were registering customers for vaccination packages.
Pronab Sarkar, president of Indian Association of Tour Operators, condemned the companies for peddling these junkets. But Zenith Holidays, which generally does not offer travel packages to the U.S., still has on its website a “Vaccine Tourism” tab where customers can fill out a registration form, click send, and within minutes an email from the company pops up in their inbox promising more information soon.
“Thank you for showing interest in our Holiday,” the email states.
Just how many Indians signed up for such a vaccination junket to the U.S. was not immediately clear because neither Shah nor anyone from Zenith Holidays responded to several emails from NBC News or an inquiry posed via the registration form.
But the very idea that somebody with money but no immediate access to the scarce Covid-19 vaccine could fly to another country to get a shot was raising both outrage and ethical questions.
In Florida, reports of rich Canadians, Brazilians and Venezuelans, as well as people from other states, crashing the Sunshine State to get a shot prompted the state’s surgeon general to sign a public health advisory last week requiring vaccination providers to ensure that every person who gets the shot lives in the state.
Argentinian celebrity lawyer Ana Rosenfeld, who was visiting family in Miami last month, got her first shot in a town near Tampa, some 270-plus miles away.
“I always wanted to get the vaccine,” Rosenfeld, 66, told the Argentine publication Teleshow. “If I would have had the possibility of doing it in Argentina, I would have done it.”
But wealthy Americans who live outside Florida have also been able to get vaccinated in the state. Richard Parsons, the former chairman and CEO of Time Warner, described on national TV how he flew down from New York to Florida to get a shot.
“It’s orderly and sensible,” Parsons, 72, said while appearing on “Squawk Box” on CNBC. “I don’t know how Florida got the march on everyone else. But you go online. You make an appointment. You get an appointment.”
Neither Rosenfeld nor Parsons had to pull any strings or call in any favors. They were able to get the shot because the executive order that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed just before Christmas gave first dibs on vaccinations to people ages 65 and older but did not specify that they had to actually live in the state.
That changed Thursday when Dr. Scott Rivkees, Florida’s surgeon general, signed a public health advisory that requires vaccination providers to ensure that every person who gets a shot in the state is a Florida resident.
“Vaccine tourism is not permitted,” Jared Moskowitz, Florida’s director of emergency management, said in a statement after hearing that Canadians were flying to his state to get vaccinated. “It’s abhorrent, people should not be flying here to get a vaccine and flying out.”
But already nearly 40,000 people, whose home address was listed as “out of state,” have been vaccinated in Florida, state data shows.
And the Florida Department of Health is now investigating allegations that MorseLife Health System, an expensive elder care center in West Palm Beach, gave Covid-19 shots meant for residents and staff to members of the Palm Beach Country Club and wealthy donors with ties to New York developers Bill and David Mack.