'Matter of survival': Wealthy Latin Americans travel to U.S. to get Covid vaccines

MONTERREY, Mexico – You travel thousands of miles by plane from Latin America to the US and in some places take a shuttle direct from the airport to the vaccination sites in Covid-19. Its ranks include politicians, television personalities, business people and a soccer team.

Latin American people charter planes, book commercial flights, buy bus tickets and rent cars to get the vaccine in the US due to a lack of supplies at home.

Virginia Gónzalez and her husband flew from Mexico to Texas and then got on a bus to a vaccination center. They made the trip again for a second dose. The couple from Monterrey, Mexico, followed the advice of the doctor treating the husband for prostate cancer. They covered a total of 1,400 miles for two round trips.

“It’s a question of survival,” said Gónzalez of receiving a Covid-19 vaccine in the US. “In Mexico officials haven’t bought enough vaccines. It’s like they don’t care about their citizens.”

With a population of nearly 130 million people, Mexico has received more vaccines than many Latin American nations – about 18 million doses from the US, China, Russia and India as of Monday. Most of these have been given to health care workers, those over 60 and some teachers who are the only ones eligible so far. Most of the other Latin American countries, with the exception of Chile, are in the same or worse situation.

Vaccine seekers who can afford to travel come to the US to avoid the long wait, including people from Paraguay. Those making the trip must get a tourist visa and have enough money to pay for the necessary coronavirus testing, airline tickets, hotel rooms, rental cars, and other expenses.

In Mexico, business with charter flights to Texas is booming.

Gónzalez and her husband were vaccinated in Edinburg, Texas, a town about 160 miles from their home. With land entry points closed for unnecessary travel, the couple decided to take a commercial flight to Houston and then travel by bus.

Earlier this month, 19 players from the professional football team known as Rayados flew from Monterrey to Dallas to receive the vaccine, local media reported. In Peru, Hernando De Soto, an economist who ran for president, faced a backlash after admitting he had traveled to the United States to get vaccinated.

Television personalities have reported on their travels on social media, attracting the contempt of many viewers who accused them of flaunting their privilege. Juan José Origel, a Mexican television presenter, tweeted a photo of himself when he received the tape in Miami in January. Argentinian TV personality Yanina Latorre also traveled to Miami to vaccinate her elderly mother and posted a video on Instagram. Shortly thereafter, Florida officials requested proof of residence for those seeking a vaccine.

About half of the US states, including Texas, Arizona, and California, don’t have such requirements and accept any official form of photo identification.

Many of the travelers have friends or relatives who live in the United States and can help them navigate the appointment system or find a remaining shot. Some have second homes in the US, others borrow US addresses. Some said they read that many Americans have no plans to get vaccinated.

Alejandra, a dentist who also lives in Monterrey, said she decided to seek a vaccine in the US shortly after losing her mother to Covid-19 in February. She registered online at a CVS pharmacy in Texas at the address of a friend who lived there.

She flew to Houston last weekend and drove to her second Moderna shot in Pasadena, Texas on Monday. She asked not to publish her full name on fear of retaliation after seeing reports that those who had traveled to the United States to get her vaccine could lose their visas.

Alejandra said she felt calm after receiving the booster shot and thinking about her mother.

“What if only my mother had the opportunity to get the vaccine in the US,” she said.

She knows there has been criticism that foreigners like her are taking advantage of American taxpayers by getting vaccinated in the United States, but she said she was trying to protect herself and her family.

“The pharmacies say it doesn’t matter if you don’t have documents … and they say it because they are looking for the common good of society,” she said.

The U.S. government pays for the vaccines and the cost of giving the shots to anyone who doesn’t have insurance.

Chris Van Deusen, a Texas Department of Health spokesman, said the Texas vaccine was “intended for people who live, work, or spend time in Texas” and that more than 99% of the people vaccinated were citizens.

Wealthy countries around the world have been able to acquire the largest supplies of vaccine, including the US, which has been criticized for not doing more for poorer countries.

Inequality drives vaccine tourism, said Ernesto Ortiz, senior manager of programs at Duke University’s Global Health Innovation Center in North Carolina, which tracks the global spread of coronavirus vaccines. In Peru, for example, only 2% of the country’s 32 million people have received a dose.

“I’m not blaming them at all, they are desperate,” the Peruvian-American scientist said in an email.

Geovanny Vazquez said he and a friend plan to take a commercial flight from Guatemala City to Dallas on May 3, where another friend offered them to find a coronavirus shot.

They sought the vaccination to feel safe while working in their home country, where they manage apartment buildings that they rent to visitors, Vazquez said.

He said he could spend up to 20 days in the US trying to get a shot. If he can’t be vaccinated in Texas, he plans to travel to other states like Louisiana or Arizona.

Should he contract COVID-19, Vazquez is confident that he will recover. “But I also work with people, and that’s the main reason I want to seek the chance,” to get the vaccine in the US, he said.

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