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With vaccines scarce at home, Central and Latin America Jews journey to the US

Samuel Hayon, a Venezuelan living in Miami, was shocked when he went to Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital to try and get the COVID-19 shot in February.

“I just ran into the entire Hebraica Israeli!” he said, referring to Caracas’s Jewish community.

Hayon had noticed a trend that would only grow in the coming weeks and months. With Central and Latin American countries unable to meet demand for coronavirus vaccines for their citizens — stymied by local bureaucracies or larger political hurdles — Jews have taken matters into their own hands, traveling to the U.S. to get a shot difficult to acquire at home.

Many non-Jewish Latin Americans have done the same, relying on U.S. relatives and friends and their deeds to U.S. properties to smooth the way — and sometimes drawing the ire of Americans and people in their home countries. Mexican TV host Juan José Origel, who is not Jewish, was widely slammed online in January after he tweeted his gratitude after receiving a vaccine in Florida, well before most Americans had the opportunity to be vaccinated.


A woman receives a COVID vaccine. By Hector Vivas / GETTY stringer

But even though vaccine supply now outstrips demand in the U.S., several Jewish vaccine tourists from Central and Latin America told the Forward that they have still decided to keep their own vaccine journeys quiet, fearing that they would be shamed for “jumping the line” in their home countries, where vaccines are still scarce.

Though some Jewish vaccine tourists who have been able to get a vaccine in the U.S. are dual citizens, for others, getting the shot meant bending local residency rules. Jewish vaccine tourists have reported falsifying leases, or adding their names to a friend’s utility bills to comply with proof of residency requirements to sign up for the shot. Many have said, though, that once at the vaccination site, they were not asked for proof of residency.

In the U.S., many locales, now flush with vaccines, have dropped residency requirements. And some cities are even encouraging vaccine tourism from foreign nationals to boost their economies. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, for example, in late May proposed a program to offer the shot to tourists at popular sites such as Time Square and the Brooklyn Bridge. “We’re going to take care of you. We’re going to make sure you get vaccinated while you’re here with us,” he said at a press conference.

But that welcome is not offered universally in the U.S. And for residents to the south, many still grapple with the knowledge that many in their home countries will resent that they have the means to travel for a potentially lifesaving shot.

Getting vaxxed, and keeping it secret

Latin and Central American Jews have traveled to American cities including Los Angeles, San Antonio and Tampa for a few nights, returned home, and then made their way back to the U.S. three to four weeks later for the second dose of the vaccine. They share tips, sometimes through WhatsApp groups, on signing up for appointments and about which vaccines are offered where.

“The very first people I heard of getting the vaccine in the U.S. were from Mexico,” said Ceci Kerbel, 61, a dual citizen who traveled from her home in San Jose, Costa Rica, to Miami to get the vaccine in April. Property she and her husband own in the U.S. allowed her to supply a required address when she signed up for the shot. “There were lots of signs that said that if you didn’t have proof of an appointment then you shouldn’t even stand in line,” she said.

Some vaccine tourists are hesitant to talk about how they were able to get their shots, for fear they would be judged for accessing it before others have the chance. A 33-year-old Jewish man from Bogota, who traveled to Orlando in April, agreed to talk about his experience on condition of anonymity.

“I didn’t share that I got vaccinated with my office,” he said of his trip to Orlando in April, before all Americans were able to get the vaccine. The coronavirus has hit the country hard, and supplies are still limited, contributing to social unrest and mass protests.

He also feels uncomfortable sharing that he got the Pfizer vaccine while the elderly in Colombia have been getting the Sinovac vaccine, which has proved less effective than the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines used in the U.S.

Almost all of his Jewish friends have made the same trip with the same purpose, said the Colombian, who got a tip to try to get vaccinated in Orlando from a friend in Panama and made his vaccine trip with his wife into a mini-vacation as well, visiting friends who helped provide him with an American address.

Ezra Jinich, an 18-year-old high school senior who also lives in Bogota and is a dual American citizen, has decided not to tell his friends that he got vaccinated in the U.S. “People don’t want to be open about whether they’ve gotten vaccinated because they’re scared of rumors” spreading about how they took advantage of the system, he said. Jinich and his twin sister were able to get the vaccine in New Jersey while visiting colleges in early February.

Other vaccine tourists shared their pangs of conscience over their decision to travel for a shot.

“I felt a type of shame and guilt of being rich and white, of being able to skip ahead in my country’s vaccination process,” said Denise Abush, a 34-year old in Mexico City, who got her vaccine in St. Petersburg, Fla., where her family has long had a summer home. “I felt like this was an example of neocolonial inequalities and I was hesitant to engage in that,” she said.

Yet, as the days passed and Abush felt increasingly certain that the Mexican government would not be able to vaccinate her age group until the winter, she started to feel less guilty.

“I arrived at the conclusion that it’s neither good nor bad,” she said of her opportunity to obtain the vaccine in the U.S. She now says the decision to travel abroad to get vaccinated should be “a totally private, personal issue,” and that it is pragmatic to take advantage of the surplus of American vaccines.

“It’s part of a more complicated framework,” she said. “Everybody in my position would probably do it if they could.”

A guilt-free trip

Others in the Jewish and Latin American communities have decided to be vocal on how they got their vaccines in the U.S., and to encourage family and friends to do the same.

Miriam Weiser, a 52-year-old educator in Mexico City, says it was at the insistence of her friends that prompted her to figure out a way to get the vaccine. “Your health comes first! Take your health seriously!” she said they told her.

In February, before the Mexican government initiated its own vaccination program, Weiser was doubtful as to whether the government would be able to provide citizens with the vaccine before the end of the year. But some of her friends and relatives in Mexico had already been vaccinated — in Dallas, San Diego and Las Vegas.

At first, Weiser planned to fly to San Antonio, rent a car, and make the five-hour drive to Pecos, Texas, the only place she was able to get an appointment with her family from abroad. In March, her daughter found appointments in Miami, so they jumped on the next flight.

She got vaccinated, and was able to spend Passover with her mother, who lives in Miami.

“It worked out perfectly,” she said.


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