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Latin America Report

Vaccine Tourist Season: How South Florida Became A Shot In The Arm For Colombia

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Courtesy Maria Eugenia Arbelaez
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FULL VAX HOUSE Colombian expat Maria Eugenia Arbelaez (front center) and her husband Alfonso (to her right) with some of the friends and family from Colombia she's put up at her Weston home this year during their visits for COVID vaccination shots.

Last winter, vaccine tourism was frowned on — but this summer developing countries like Colombia realize it actually aided their own fledgling vaccination efforts.

At the start of this year, COVID-19 vaccination drives were off and running in the U.S. and Europe — but not in Latin America. And few countries were as far behind as Colombia, which didn’t receive its first vaccine doses until the end of February and struggled with the rollout of its own vaccination effort.

But now: it's the U.S. that's been struggling to get more people vaccinated while Colombia suddenly has one of the highest vaccination rates in Latin America. A quarter of its population is now fully vaccinated — and what helped turned things around may have a lot to do with South Florida and Colombian "vaccine tourists" like Juliana Mejía.

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"I do think we helped give Colombia's troubled vaccination effort a good kickstart," said Mejía who, with her husband, parents and two young children, made two trips in May from their home city of Bogotá, Colombia, to Broward County for COVID vaccination shots.

"We had the means to do it and I think it turns out it was a good health investment not just for us but for Colombia," she said.

Mejía, who runs an immigration counseling firm in Bogotá, is 35. At that time COVID shots weren't yet available for her age group — and didn't look to be for quite some time.

“We were thinking we weren’t going to get vaccinated until 2022 — like late 2022," said Mejía, "which is what triggered the decision to go to the U.S.”

READ MORE: Aid in the Time of COVID: Young Latino, Caribbean Expats Help Their Native Countries

On April 30, Florida ended its requirement that people prove state residence in order to get vaccinated. Suddenly in May, nearly 170,000 Colombians traveled to the U.S. — a 75% increase over the previous month. Mejía recalls nurses joking about it at Markham Park in Sunrise, where she got her Pfizer shots.

“Oof, the people who would vaccinate us would laugh and say, ‘Oh, some more Colombians are coming!" Mejía said. "They'd say, 'We just vaccinated I don’t know how many Colombians.'”

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Courtesy Juliana Mejia
Colombian vaccine tourist Juliana Mejia shows her family's vaccination cards after receiving their shots in Sunrise in May.

What’s not a joke is the apparent impact those visiting Colombians have had on the vaccination campaign back in Colombia.

Last winter, vaccine tourists from developing countries — especially those who flaunted their privilege on social media — were often criticized for using their middle- and upper-class resources to get what so many of their fellow citizens couldn’t.

Now, there’s a sense they’ve done something good.

Dr. Carlos Espinal, a Colombian who heads the Global Health Consortium at Florida International University's Robert Stempel College of Public Health, was himself critical of vaccine tourism early on — and has since changed his mind.

I was once sort of critical of vaccine tourism, but now I realize Colombians vaccinated in the U.S. have actually played an important role for the general Colombian population.
Dr. Carlos Espinal

“It has a positive impact because it increases the number of vaccines that become available for the Colombian population," said Espinal, whose own son and daughter recently came to South Florida from Colombia to get vaccinated.

In other words, for people back home who can't afford the time or fare to fly to South Florida, it's helped free up more vaccine — like the 6 million doses the Biden administration just donated to Colombia — and in turn helps raise the country's vaccination rate more quickly.

Espinal estimates hundreds of thousands of Colombians have come for vaccination this year, not just to South Florida but other U.S. destinations like New York.

He points out since the Colombian vaccine tourist wave hit critical mass in May, the number of vaccine doses Colombia has administered has jumped from fewer than 10 million to almost 30 million. That's largely a result of factors like large dose shipments finally arriving in the country; but Espinal credits something intangible as well:

“I think the Colombians vaccinated in the U.S. also have an important role after returning to the country,” he said.

That is, Colombians like Mejía have gone back relaying observations such as the U.S.’s lack of vaccination red tape.

"SUPER EASY"

“We were telling people, like, it’s super easy," Mejía said. "You didn’t even have to make an appointment. In Colombia then, they actually had to call you for an appointment. You couldn’t just show up.”

Espinal, who's in close contact with Colombia’s health ministry, says those reports from returning vaccine tourists have reached Colombian media and officials — and have helped persuade Colombia to make its own vaccination system more accessible.

“The government now is facilitating an open vaccination program with not any pre-registration restrictions and so on," Espinal said.

Meanwhile, more Colombian vaccine tourists keep flying to South Florida.

“In this year in my house I've received 20 people," said Colombian expat Maria Eugenia Arbelaez.

Arbelaez is a retired teacher in Weston who came to the U.S. two decades to escape Colombia's civil war. She has made her house a free hostel of sorts for family and friends coming from Colombia for vaccination.

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Courtesy Maria Eugenia Arbelaiz
Colombian Laura Mejia of Medellin, one of Maria Eugenia Arbelaez's vaccine tourist house guests, receiving her Johnson shot from in her car (a convenience not then available in Colombia) at Miami Dade College North campus.

She’s also provided them with lists of vaccination sites and contacts, and which vaccines are being given where. She says it’s made her feel she’s helping her home country fight COVID.

“We tell them to go home and be messengers of how fundamental it is to get vaccinated,” said Arbelaez, “to tell Colombians not to waste this opportunity.”

And not to waste it the way so many Americans have. This summer the U.S. vaccination rate has fallen short of what health experts say is necessary to rein in the pandemic here — and COVID cases and deaths are spiking again in South Florida, fueled by the delta variant.

Another vaccine tourist from Bogotá, Carolina Vásquez, said she was stunned during her visit earlier this year that more South Floridians weren’t taking advantage of their vaccine availability.

“There wasn’t even a line to get vaccinated," said Vásquez. "It’s sad, like, really? You don’t know how many people in Colombia would kill to have gotten that vaccine months ago?”

Vásquez voiced a sentiment echoed by other Colombian vaccine tourists WLRN spoke with: If the U.S. and other rich countries had months ago begun donating vaccines to countries like Colombia — nations without the resources to develop their own vaccines — vaccine tourism might not have been necessary in the first place.

But since it was, they point out something else besides the Colombian vaccination program that's benefited from it: the South Florida economy.