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Some Mexicans Travel To U.S. For COVID Vaccines As Their Country's Rollout Stumbles

Viles of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine are pictured at Rady Children's Hospital in San Diego, Calif., in December. Mexicans have gone to California, Florida and other states seeking vaccines, as their own country has struggled to roll them out.
Viles of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine are pictured at Rady Children's Hospital in San Diego, Calif., in December. Mexicans have gone to California, Florida and other states seeking vaccines, as their own country has struggled to roll them out.

Some Mexicans with family ties or dual citizenship in the U.S., or who can afford the airfare, head north of the border to get vaccinated faster than the months of waiting for one back home.

In Mexico, where less than 5% of the population has received a COVID-19 vaccine dose, the rich and well-connected have found a faster way to get their hands on one: travel north.

Some Mexicans with family ties or dual citizenship in the United States, or who just can afford the airfare, are heading to the U.S. to get vaccinated faster than the many months of waiting for one back home.

They've also not been shy to share their tips and stories online about how they do it. The phenomenon has sparked intense debate: between officials who believe U.S. residents should have priority and those who feel that, in a general sense, the more people vaccinated the better. But the picture isn't that black and white.

The quest for shots comes as Mexico struggles to secure and distribute vaccines against COVID-19, with the country's confirmed deaths from the disease now surpassing 200,000.

David Gutiérrez Inzunza, a Baja California state public health official in the Mexican border city of Tijuana, said the state has been hit hard by the coronavirus. He was one of thousands of people registered with severe cases there in the past year.

"Ten months ago I was dying, OK, I have my second call in life," Gutiérrez said on a recent afternoon in Tijuana, recalling how he fell sick and was treated with supplemental oxygen for weeks.

He said only those who have had the disease understand how he feels. He had to get his hand on a vaccine quickly. But most of Tijuana's limited supply was going to front-line hospital workers. So he looked for options. And the best was to get the vaccine across the border in San Diego, Calif. He has gotten both doses at a local Vons grocery store chain.

"I'm no longer someone who can infect my neighbor. I'm fully vaccinated and that's really important," he said.

The COVID-19 vaccines used in the U.S. can substantially prevent someone from getting the disease, but according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, scientists are still studying how effective they are at preventing vaccinated people from spreading the disease.

Gutiérrez was born in San Diego and has a California ID. He said he obtained the identification using his brother's home address in San Diego.

He insists that no one at the vaccination site checked whether he worked or resided in the county, the two requirements necessary to get a shot there.

​"If they had asked me, I would have told the truth and left," Gutiérrez said.

There aren't exact numbers on how many Mexicans are getting shots in the U.S. Florida reports more than 128,000 "out-of-state" residents received vaccine shots, but the figures made public don't specify international visitors. Officials have tightened ID requirements.

But vaccine tourism has become a bit of a phenomenon in Mexico. It's easy to find testimonies and tips on social media and in chat groups about getting a vaccine in the U.S.

Mexican TV host Juan José Origel boasted recently on Instagram about getting his second vaccine dose in Miami.

"Here I am walking and walking, all around. They didn't even ask for my visa," he said, chuckling as he put on a face mask.

Seventy-year-old Mauricio Fernández Garza, a mayoral candidate for San Pedro Garza García, a wealthy suburb of northern Monterrey, posted on Facebook about his vaccine trip to Texas.

He said he got his shot while observing the U.S. rollout strategy.

NPR talked to a number of other people who would share their or their relatives' experiences of going to the U.S. to get vaccines only if they weren't fully identified, for fear of public backlash for "cutting the line."

Some of those people told NPR of taking trips to Texas, California and to the ski area Vail, Colo., for a shot.

Kris Widlak, a government spokeswoman in Colorado's Eagle County, where Vail is located, said to get a vaccine there you must attest to working or living in the county 30 days prior to vaccination and 30 days after.

"We expect you to be good citizens of the world and to come in because you are eligible," she said.

Widlak said the state guidelines are purposely broad so that undocumented residents, many who work in the city's resorts, won't be discouraged from getting the vaccine. And that is the state's top priority, not catching vaccine tourists.

"Chasing down people who may or may not be eligible after they appear to be eligible is probably not where we want to put our time and energy. We just want to get vaccines in arms," she said.

And with vaccine supplies increasing lately, there's even less need to be so restrictive, she added.

That is definitely not the case in South Texas, according to state Rep. Eddie Morales. His district includes eight counties right along the border. He has been struggling to get vaccines and fielding lots of complaints of foreign nationals "jumping the line."

Recently he was told by county officials about a private plane with 12 Mexicans aboard arriving in the small town of Pecos. They all got vaccinated, he said.

"It's these influential superrich Mexicans that have the means and are rigging the system," he said. Morales wants residency rules to be tightened. "To make sure that the folks here in Texas are getting vaccinated before we can continue caring for others and our neighbors."

The Biden administration has said the United States will send Mexico more than 2 million COVID-19 vaccine doses. Mexico's president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, said he's grateful.

López Obrador hopes to get all of the country's citizens over the age of 60 vaccinated with at least one dose by the end of April. Logistical snafus and worldwide supply limitations make that a challenge. The country has been increasingly relying on vaccine deals with China and Russia.

Roberto Velasco, Mexico's undersecretary for North American affairs, tweeted that doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine will begin arriving from the U.S. this weekend. "Sunday we will receive the first shipment of 1.5 million doses — the largest to have arrived in [Mexico] yet," he wrote.

Earlier this month, President Biden said, "We're going to start off making sure Americans are taken care of first and then we're going to help the rest of the world." But the Mexico shipment is not expected to affect U.S. efforts. In addition to the vaccines administered nationally, the U.S. has large stockpiles of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which it hasn't authorized for use yet. Mexico approved the vaccine for emergency use in January.

Gutiérrez, the health official who went to San Diego for his shot, said he understands U.S. rules and regulations but believes that good health policies should transcend borders.

"In this particular case, amid a worldwide pandemic, life and health of everyone should be priority No. 1," he said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.