At 8 a.m. on February 14, the very minute New York made me eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine, I fired up my laptop and started looking for a shot. Over the course of five torturous minutes, I blasted my way through a laggy eligibility screener, waited for the confirmation page to unfreeze, and finally landed on the portal listing the state’s mass-vaccination sites. “Appointments available,” promised the Westchester County Center, the one closest to my house.
I clicked to sign up, but it was too late. Within 45 seconds, I moved on to Manhattan’s Javits Center, where I seemed to have nabbed an appointment but then was met with an error screen. I worked my way down the list of sites and continued to strike out. Long Island? Nothing. Albany? Nope. Binghamton? Nada. After 30 minutes of clicking, refreshing, and waiting, I finally snatched a slot: February 26, at 4:30 p.m., in Plattsburgh … a four-and-a-half-hour drive from where I live.
Yes, I am a vaccine tourist, one of at least hundreds of thousands of Americans who have traveled beyond their community or region to get a coveted shot. Vaccine tourism is a broad phenomenon that entails both residents driving to different parts of their state and, say, Californians flying to Florida. In some cases, like mine, this is explicitly allowed: New York’s Plattsburgh site is open to any state resident. But in other cases, it is forbidden. That’s because vaccine tourists have been blamed for worsening the pandemic’s already uneven toll. The people who can afford to take time off from work and fly or drive many hours for a shot are more likely to be well-off, in theory taking doses that would otherwise have gone to more vulnerable local residents.