Published on January 26, 2021
Understanding the Risks of Vaccine Tourism for Cancer Patients
Before you pack your bags and head to the Sunshine State in search of a COVID-19 vaccine, there are two things we want you to know. First, Florida was initially offering vaccines to people age 65 and older without requiring proof of residency, but that has since changed. Second, increasing your risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus by traveling during the pandemic may not be worth the perceived benefits of getting vaccinated early.
What is Vaccine Tourism?
While Florida has long been a popular destination for those seeking sunshine, sandy beaches and theme parks, the state’s initial approach to vaccine distribution led to an influx of a new type of traveler: the vaccine tourist. By not requiring vaccine seekers to prove their residency, the state inadvertently opened its doors to anyone who met the age criteria and had both the means to travel and the desire to be vaccinated.
As of January 24, more than 47,000 people from other states (and countries) had received the COVID-19 vaccine in Florida, according to the daily vaccine report published by the Florida Department of Health. That’s approximately 3.4% of the state’s vaccine allocation to date. While Governor Ron DeSantis initially downplayed complaints about vaccine tourism from frustrated Florida residents, he changed course after State Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees issued a public health advisory requiring COVID-19 vaccine seekers to provide proof of residency.
“We're only doing [shots] for Florida residents," DeSantis said at a press conference last week. He later clarified that snowbirds and other part-time residents are eligible for the vaccine, too.
"Now we do have part-time residents who are here all winter. They go to doctors here or whatever, that's fine. What we don't want is tourists, foreigners. We want to put seniors first, but we obviously want to put people that live here first in line."
The Risk of Vaccine Tourism for Patients with Cancer
Under the new guidelines, patients with cancer are still eligible to receive the vaccine in Florida if they meet the age requirement and can prove at least part-time residency. But just because you can, does that mean you should? If you’re not in Florida now, going there to get the vaccine may increase your risk of exposure to the virus that causes the very illness you’re trying to prevent.
While studies have shown that the risk of catching the coronavirus on an airplane is low, being surrounded by strangers in an airport security line or baggage claim is a riskier scenario than staying home. The same goes for hotels and gas stations for those traveling by car. And what happens if you do catch the virus en route to getting the vaccine?
According to a study published in JAMA Oncology on December 10, 2020, patients with cancer are at a significantly increased risk for COVID-19 infection and are likely to have worse outcomes. Similarly, a study from Penn Medicine published on January 21, 2021, found that patients in cancer remission are at high risk for severe COVID-19 illness. And the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) affirms that patients with cancer, especially those with hematologic malignancies (cancers of the blood, bone marrow and lymph nodes), are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.
So yes, while you may be able to get the vaccine a few weeks earlier by heading across state lines, in doing so you risk your health and the health of others.
Protect Yourself and Others from COVID-19
As experts continue to study both the virus and the vaccines, health officials recommend that patients with cancer stay home when possible. If you must go out, follow the COVID-19 guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
- Wear a mask over your nose and mouth.
- Stay at least six feet away from people who don’t live in your household.
- Wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
- Use hand sanitizer when soap and water are not available.
- Avoid crowds and poorly ventilated spaces.
For questions about the COVID-19 vaccine as it relates to your health and treatment plan, talk to your cancer care team for guidance. For more information about vaccine availability in your area, contact your state or local health department.
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