‘Like a Dream’: Latin Americans travel to United States for Covid Shots

RIO DE JANEIRO – Florencia Gonzalez Alzaga, a photographer from Buenos Aires, worked out her plan to travel to the United States for a coronavirus vaccine after the topic was brought up in her Zoom book club.

Juan Pablo Bojacá, a Colombian Instagram influencer specializing in frugal travel, urged his 137,000 subscribers to try, posting a step-by-step video guide that showed him going through passport control in Miami.

José Acevedo, a real estate agent in Paraguay, was stunned by how easily it all unfolded in Las Vegas.

Frustrated by the delayed pace of home vaccination campaigns and seeing excess doses in the United States – where tens of millions of Americans have chosen not to get vaccinated – the rich and middle class of Latin America with U.S. tourist visas have flocked to the United States in recent weeks to mark a Covid-19 shot.

“It’s like a dream,” said Ms. Gonzalez, who was shot in Miami in April.

Access has proven to be a boon for the privileged in countries where the virus continues to wreak havoc – though many, including those who benefit from it, are struggling with the fact that vaccine tourism exacerbates the inequalities that have exacerbated the virus. assessment of the pandemic.

Sean Simons, spokesperson for the ONE campaign, which works to eradicate disease and poverty, said vaccine trips could have serious unintended consequences, and urged countries with vaccine surpluses to instead route them through a World Health Organization vaccine distribution system known as Covax.

“Millionaires and billionaires traveling across continents or oceans to get vaccinated, usually twice, means greater exposure, a higher likelihood of the spread of variants, and access only for the most elite,” he said. -he declares.

The Biden administration said this month it would donate 80 million doses of vaccine by the end of June to countries struggling to vaccinate their populations.

Yet as the success stories of Latin Americans getting their jabs are shared on social media and word of mouth, and local officials At New York and Alaska are actively promoting vaccination tourism, the cost of plane tickets on several routes has skyrocketed as thousands consider heading north.

Travel agencies in the region have started selling vaccination packages, including multi-country itineraries for Brazilians, who must spend two weeks in a third country before they are allowed to enter the United States.

José Carlos Brunetti, vice president of Maral Turismo, a travel agency in Paraguay’s capital, Asunción, said the trips had been a boon to his industry after a dismal year.

“The frenzy of traveling to the United States to try to get vaccinated started in March,” he said. “Now we are seeing exponential growth in the number of passengers and flights. “

Generally speaking, foreigners entering on a tourist visa are allowed to seek treatment in the United States.

As the State Department conducts security background checks of foreigners applying for visas, officials said it had not traced people who were visiting explicitly for vaccinations, and that it does appear there have no federal government guidelines for foreigners coming to the United States for this purpose. .

Once in the country, officials said, it is up to states, local communities and healthcare providers to decide whether to administer the vaccine without proof of residency in the United States.

Prominent Latin American politicians are among those who flew to the United States for a photo.

César Acuña promised as Peru’s presidential candidate earlier this year that he intended to be “the last” in his country to get the vaccine. But after losing at the polls, he said there was no point in keeping that promise.

“Remember that I am 68 years old; I am a vulnerable person, ”he said in a radio interview.

Mauricio Macri, the former president of Argentina, sworn in February that he would not be “vaccinated before the last Argentinian from a high-risk group and that not all essential workers have been”. Despite having imposed a series of strict quarantine measures since last year, Argentina is facing a generalized epidemic which experts say is being fueled in part by a highly contagious variant first detected in Brazil. .

Despite his wish to wait to be vaccinated, Mr Marci wrote in a post on Facebook This month he had received the vaccine as a single injection from Johnson & Johnson in Miami after realizing that “the vaccines are applied everywhere, from beaches to malls and even in drugstores.”

Among the 12 Latin Americans who traveled to the United States to be vaccinated and who were interviewed for this article, several expressed their sense of conflict. Some who declined to speak officially said they felt guilty about getting the vaccine while compatriots most vulnerable to the disease remain at risk.

Ms Gonzalez, the Argentinian photographer, said her plan was devised after members of her online book club started talking more about their fears about the pandemic than about the books they were reading.

“We started talking about it and we thought, why shouldn’t we go to Miami and get the shot? ” she said. “Week to week we bought the tickets.

Ms Gonzalez said she was able to easily make an appointment for a vaccine the day after arriving in Miami on April 1. The blow from Johnson & Johnson she received at a Salvation Army center ended an agonizing period of isolation that reminded her of her cancer treatment seven years ago.

She was surprised at how few questions people asked at the vaccination site. “They wanted to vaccinate people,” she said. “They were delighted to be vaccinated. “

The first wave of Argentinian vaccine travelers who returned home with US vaccine certificates led to a steep rise in the cost of airline tickets, said Santiago Torre Walsh, who runs a popular travel blog, Mr. Chandler.

Travelers were initially reluctant to recognize the purpose of their trip, he said.

“Now that has changed,” he said. “People seem more willing to talk about it openly, which in turn motivates others to do so as well. “

This is what Mr. Bojacá, the Colombian Instagram influencer, did. Video of his vaccination trip, posted to Instagram, includes a surreptitiously recorded scene in which a US passport control officer asked who he was visiting. He and a travel companion said they were visiting friends.

“The guy didn’t even ask what we had come to do here,” Mr. Bojacá marveled in a later scene in the video. “I had practiced saying ‘vaccines’ in English 80 times.”

As the flow of vaccinated travelers from countries like Colombia, Peru, Argentina and Mexico has increased for months, Brazilians face a unique challenge.

The United States currently prohibits most people who have spent time in Brazil from boarding flights to U.S. cities, unless they have spent two weeks in a country that is not subject to the restrictions. travel related to coronaviruses. Returning US citizens and permanent residents are still allowed to enter the United States.

Andrea Schver, owner of Venice Turismo, a travel agency based in São Paulo, said the ban was not insurmountable for wealthy clients, who are increasingly willing to spend several thousand dollars to get a photo . In April, she sold packages that included a two-week stopover in places like Cancun or a Caribbean island. In the first 18 days of May, she organized trips for more than 40 passengers, she said.

Clients include a TV personality who will soon start recording a new show and other wealthy Brazilians who are used to taking extravagant vacations every year, she said.

“These are families who travel all year round, and they have been grounded for a year with money to spare,” she said, noting that almost all of the customers had purchased business class tickets. . “These are not people who are going to look for good deals.”

Mr Acevedo, the real estate agent in Paraguay, said he has come to view his vaccination trip as a worthwhile investment and perhaps a saving step, as being overweight puts him at higher risk.

“I cannot stop working, producing, and my job involves contact with many people,” he said.

He felt that by getting an American vaccine, he eased the burden on the Paraguayan government.

“Part of it is not taking a dose from the people who need it most,” he said.

Ernesto Londoño reported from Rio de Janeiro, Daniel Politi from Buenos Aires and Santi Carneri from Asunción, Paraguay. Lis Moriconi contributed reporting from Rio de Janeiro and Lara Jakes from Washington.

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