Dismayed by the slow rollout of Covid-19 shots at home, middle-class Mexicans are increasingly travelling to the US as loose inoculation policies in some states fuel vaccine tourism.
“It’s sort of common knowledge that you can get vaccinated in different places,” said Julia Reyes, a researcher who travelled from Mexico to Dallas this week to get her first jab and asked not to use her real name.
“They don’t ask for anything because the policy is ‘we want everyone here to get vaccinated’.”
Via WhatsApp groups or word of mouth, Mexicans with the ability to travel at the drop of a hat are swapping tips and packing planes, taking advantage of their proximity to a country with a bountiful vaccine supply and where doses in some places — including the border state of Texas — are going unused.
Try Las Vegas, some advise — some hotels throw in a free night to people travelling to get their jabs. Claim to have a health condition like diabetes or hypertension, if anyone asks, others recommend. If vaccines have run out by 5pm, go back the next day at 7am; you can show your Mexican driver’s licence, others counsel.
“I had to become a vaccine detective,” said one university professor, who asked not to be identified. Keen not to jump the queue, she only travelled to the US once vaccinations for her age band had been authorised — information she discovered by checking websites on a daily basis.
“My decision is based on a very clear-headed evaluation of the Mexican vaccine process — for people my age, it could take months — they are not even vaccinating all healthcare workers,” she said.
Mexico has stepped up its vaccine distribution, hitting a record of nearly 554,000 doses on a single day this week, but Marcelo Ebrard, foreign minister, acknowledged reliance on foreign-made shots had caused “delays and difficulties”.
Since becoming the first Latin American country to start vaccinating, on Christmas Eve last year, Mexico has administered more than 13m doses, largely to front-line health workers, over 60s and some teachers. The government insists all over-60s will have had at least one dose by the end of this month, and vaccinations for teachers and over 50s will start soon.
By contrast, the US, which has administered more than 200m shots, is rapidly opening up vaccine eligibility. All states are now vaccinating anyone aged 16 or over or have promised to do so soon. Texas alone has administered more than 15m shots.
In some places supply is outstripping demand, with gaps opening up between the number of vaccines delivered and the number administered, especially in the south.
Data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that several states, especially in the south-east of the country, have more than 30 per cent of their vaccines unused. In Texas, just under a quarter of the distributed vaccines have not yet been used.
Part of the reason appears to be a reluctance to get vaccinated, which is particularly strong among rural Republicans. Polling by the health think-tank the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) has found that this group are the most likely to say they will definitely not get a vaccine.
Texas is among the places where Mexicans who fear a long wait back home are taking advantage. There are no residency requirements for vaccinations in the state, along with 20 others, according to KFF.
“The plane here was packed,” said Reyes, who spotted someone she had seen on board at the Walmart where she was vaccinated. Football Club Monterrey, known as the Rayados, a soccer team based in northern Mexico, reportedly travelled en masse to Dallas in recent days to get the jab.
“They [the medical staff] kept thanking us for getting the vaccine,” said the professor, who got her shot at a huge vaccination centre in another US state, Utah.
Alicia, another Mexican who also asked not to give her real name, said she signed up to “tons of accounts” before travelling to Texas. As soon as CVS pharmacy announced vaccinations were open, she jumped.
Julien de Bellaigue, a French restaurant owner in Mexico City, also travelled to Texas this week for his first shot. “In Mexico, if I’d had to wait my turn — I’m 40 — I’d be waiting until spring 2022. In France, I might be eligible in the autumn, but I’m over here. I see a lot of people all day because of my job and every day I go to sleep saying ‘I hope I haven’t caught it’,” he said.
One of his friends has even set up a business, he said, charging $180 to get vaccine appointments for people travelling from Mexico.
The Texas health department said the state’s distribution programme was “intended for people who live in, work in, or spend a significant amount of time in Texas”.
As of last week, 99.4 per cent of people vaccinated in Texas were from the state, officials said, compared with 0.56 per cent from out of state and 0.04 per cent from another country. “The data shows it’s not a major issue,” the department said.
“The need for Mexicans to go to the US is 100 per cent, it’s not for fun,” said Alicia, who has a health condition that makes her a high risk for Covid. Because of that, she could not take viral vector vaccines, and was concerned that the BioNTech/Pfizer jab may not be available.
She is now fully vaccinated with both Pfizer doses. She did have misgivings: “Some people have said we’re abusing the US government and we are, it’s true”.
But Reyes said: “I think it’s an amazing policy — they really do care and want everyone going through their country to be vaccinated, whether illegal immigrants or tourists.”
Mexico’s government has a political imperative to speed up its own vaccine programme: midterm elections are in June, and President Andrés Manuel López Obrador hopes to tighten his grip on Congress and boost the number of states ruled by his party.
According to a recent poll, 67 per cent of those Mexicans who had already been vaccinated, or who had a relative who had, approved of the president, 8 points higher than among the uninoculated.
In a country where an estimated eight out of 10 Covid deaths have been among those with little or no education, vaccine tourism is only worsening the yawning divide between rich and poor.
“Unfortunately, it exacerbates the inequality perpetuated by Covid,” said Jason Marczak director of the Atlantic Council's Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center. “Elites can buy a plane ticket and get the shot but the people who need it even more — because they can't stay home and telework — can't.”
Additional reporting by Justin Jacobs