A retired New York couple in their 70’s flew to Florida, where they have a second home, for four days to receive the COVID vaccine amid growing concerns about tourists flying into the state for the shot – but Gov. Ron DeSantis denies there’s an influx of medical tourists.
Phil and Roberta Rice, both in their early 70’s, wanted to get the vaccine as soon as possible because they both have underlying health conditions that make them vulnerable to severe complications from COVID-19.
The former schoolteachers live in Delmar, New York most of the year but have a second home in Naples, Florida where they spend the winters. This winter they stayed put due to the pandemic.
In a desperate bid to get the vaccine as soon as possible they flew to Florida because the state was one of the first to prioritize inoculating people 65 and up.
They received the first shot of the Moderna vaccine on January 7, a week before New York changed its eligibility criteria to include people 65 and up on Tuesday. According to prior guidelines, those under the age of 75 weren’t slated to get the shot for months.
‘We were up in the air. So when we saw that it looked more likely that we’d be able to get it in Florida much sooner, maybe even months sooner, decided to go for it,’ Phil said to the Times Union.
Despite reports about tourists and day-trippers traveling to Florida just for the vaccine, Gov. DeSantis says they’re just ‘snowbirds’ returning to their second homes in the state, who could infect others if they aren’t vaccinated.
Retired New York couple Phil and Roberta Rice, both in their early 70’s, flew to their second home in Florida to receive the COVID-19 vaccine on January 7 because the state was allowing people 65 and up to get the shot. They returned to New York four days later. The couple shared this Facebook post posing with their vaccination stickers after getting their first dose
Florida was one of the first states to allow people aged 65 and up to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. New York only adjusted vaccine eligibility to include people 65 and older on Tuesday. In a bid to get inoculated as soon as possible they flew to Florida for a few days to get first access to get the vaccine. Phil pictured left and his wife Roberta right
The retired schoolteacher couple wanted to get the vaccine as soon as possible because they both have underlying health conditions that make them vulnerable to severe complications from COVID-19. They usually spend winters in Florida but didn’t this year due to the pandemic. ‘I wish I could somehow make everyone have vaccine right away. I do feel bad that other people haven’t been as lucky as we have in that sense,’ Phil said
However, travel for the vaccine has led to criticism over unfair and inconsistent vaccine rollout policies, where the rich can travel across state lines and cut ahead of the line.
‘I think it’s totally fine if they wanted to’ be vaccinated, the Republican governor said at a recent news conference.
‘It’s not like they’re just vacationing for two weeks. … They have relationships with doctors. They get medical care in Florida. … So that’s a little bit different than somebody that’s just doing tourism,’ he explained.
While still in their New York home the Rices reserved vaccination appointments in Lee County, Florida, near their second home, and after several attempts they snagged two of the approximately 5,000 vaccine doses Lee County planned to distribute the first week of January.
The couple then flew to Florida that week and received one shot each of the Moderna vaccine on January 7 and flew back to New York on Monday.
They said they intend to drive back down for their second dose and spend the rest of the winter at their home there.
Since the start of the pandemic Florida has recorded more than 1.5million COVID-19 cases and 23,613 resident deaths and 368 non-resident deaths, as of Thursday state data.
Phil, a director at the Theater Barn in New Lebanon, says he understands that controversy about the vaccine rollout and how people can cut the line by traveling to other states with looser vaccine restrictions.
‘I wish I could somehow make everyone have vaccine right away. I do feel bad that other people haven’t been as lucky as we have in that sense,’ he said.
The Rice’s journey across state lines is also an example of how a lack of federal guidelines surrounding the vaccine rollout could lead to social inequity, as people from higher socioeconomic backgrounds can afford to travel to different parts of the country for the shot ahead of those who can’t.
About 4 percent of the 650,000 people who have been inoculated in Florida list an out-of-state residence, health department records released this week show.
About 2 percent of both the 1.5 million people who have been diagnosed in Florida with COVID-19 and the nearly 24,000 who have died there of the disease have been nonresidents.
Since the start of the pandemic Florida has recorded more than 1.5million COVID-19 cases and 23,613 resident deaths and 368 non-resident deaths, as of Thursday state data. A resident gets her vaccinations card after receiving a Pfizer-BioNtech Covid-19 vaccine at The Palace, an independent living community for seniors, at Coral Gables in Miami, Florida on Tuesday
A resident at The Palace, an independent living community for seniors, at Coral Gables in Miami, Florida, pictured receiving the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine on Tuesday
The Florida Department of Health has no residency requirement for people to receive the vaccine in the state. A view of residents at The Palace, an independent living community for seniors, at Coral Gables in Miami, Florida, pictured waiting for a follow-up check after receiving the Pfizer-BioNtech Covid-19 vaccine on Tuesday
Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava visits a COVID-19 vaccination site setup at Tropical Park on Wednesday in Miami
This graph by the Florida Health Department shows the growth of new cases of COVID among state residents a day, showing how it has slightly declined in January
This graph shows Florida’s resident deaths, showing how it has slumped since December
Phil admitted he has ‘some misgivings’ about people with no connections to Florida flying in to get the shot. He explains that he and his wife have had a home in Florida for years and would’ve been there at this time of the year anyways were it not for the pandemic.
‘I think more than anything else it’s peace of mind. The vaccine will make it much less likely that we will become ill and hopefully we may be able to spend a little more time with our family. But I don’t think it’s going to mean we stop wearing masks and social distancing. I think we’ll continue to do those things until more people have gotten the vaccine,’ he said.
The Florida Department of Health has no residency requirement for people to receive the vaccine in the state.
As long as one meets the state’s eligibility criteria – which at the moment includes long-term care facility residents and staff, people 65 and older, and health care personnel – they can get the shot.
‘The vaccine is available to residents, non-residents and part-time residents who meet the authorization criteria,’ the state’s health department said.
Concerns about tourists and day-trippers swooping into Florida just for the vaccine are mounting, but Gov. Ron DeSantis has brushed the criticism aside. DeSantis said the nonresidents who are getting shots are almost entirely ‘snowbirds’ returning to their second homes, who could infect others if they aren’t vaccinated. A view of residents of The Palace, a community for seniors, in Miami, Florida waiting to receive the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine on Tuesday above
James Hughes receives the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine from a healthcare worker at a recently opened drive-thru site on Wednesday in The Villages, Florida
A Hillsborough County Fire Rescue team member speaks to a person in a car as people line up at a coronavirus vaccination site at the Strawberry Festival Fairgrounds in Plant City, Florida on January 13
Barbara Johnson smiles while receiving the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a drive-through vaccination site at the Strawberry Festival Fairgrounds in Plant City, Florida on Wednesday
Not all Florida officials are happy about people flying in for the vaccine.
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat who is contemplating a run against DeSantis next year, said her office has received multiple complaints from Floridians who are angry that nonresidents are getting shots and who allege that some are not 65 or older. That is on top of complaints that vaccination appointments are gobbled up as soon as they are posted while phone and online registration systems keep crashing.
‘This is a major issue. We are seeing lines all across the state of Florida. … I’ve talked to seniors who’ve waited hours upon hours,’ Fried said.
Vaccine eligibility varies widely by state. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said this week that states should follow Florida´s model and concentrate vaccination efforts on those 65 and older, but governors and health officials have crafted their own rules.
As a result, senior citizens, teachers, police, firefighters, grocery store workers and prison inmates all hold different places in line depending on where they live.
DeSantis said Tuesday that there have been calls to vaccine registration hotlines from foreigners and residents of other states who want to travel to Florida only long enough to get the shots, but they are turned away.
And Argentine television personality Yanina Latorre said in an online video that her 80-year-old mother got vaccinated in Miami-Dade County during their annual trip to South Florida. She praised Florida officials for allowing outsiders to get shots. She noted that there is no vaccine available in Argentina.
‘I came to a country where the vaccine is legal for all people that are older than 65 years, and I got my mother vaccinated,’ Latorre said. ‘I didn’t do anything illegal.’