TALLAHASSEE — Amid shortages of vaccines to protect against the coronavirus, Florida’s top health officer on Thursday advised counties across his state to prioritize available doses to residents, including so-called snowbirds who reside in the state part-time.
Uncertainty over the vaccine supply has prompted concern over medical tourism, particularly those coming from overseas who could prevent some Florida seniors from getting their turn for vaccination first. Health officials have discounted that such a problem exists but moved anyway to make it more explicit that the state’s supply of vaccines should be reserved for residents and others with strong ties to Florida.
In a two-page advisory signed by Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees, the state Health Department noted that the “vaccine remains scarce with the United States and vaccine availability in Florida is extremely limited.”
As a result, Rivkees issued a public health advisory that directs “prioritization of Floridians for COVID-19 vaccine in Florida.”
That means vaccine providers must first ascertain whether a shot recipient is a permanent or seasonal resident by providing a driver’s license or a host of other documents, including rental leases and utility bills as spelled out by the state Health Department.
Gov. Ron DeSantis has downplayed so-called medical tourism, which he has called inappropriate, and said he would crack down on the practice by who he called “interlopers.” But state officials have said any such occurrences have been isolated. As it stands, less than 3.5% of the 1.2 million people administered vaccines in Florida have been from out of state, including “snowbirds.”
Even before Rivkees issued his advisory, health departments in some Florida counties had already begun to restrict COVID-19 vaccines to state residents only as the demand continues to overwhelm local governments and hospitals. At least one hospital network had also announced earlier this week that it began restricting the vaccine to U.S. residents only.
The announcement of the added restrictions comes a week after state officials downplayed claims that nonresidents were swooping into the state to get vaccinated.
Misty Servia, a commissioner in Manatee County, was among the first officials to announce the new restrictions to her constituents. Although she said it was a good move, the goal was not to keep the vaccine from “snowbirds.” Servia said she had not heard reports of visitors from other states or countries flying into her community solely with the purpose of getting the shot.
“But the perception out there is very powerful that it was happening. We just didn’t have any data that it happened here,” Servia said.
Florida was one of the first to open vaccine eligibility to members of the general public over age 65.
So far, 41,000 of the 1.2 million people who have been vaccinated in the state were marked as out-of-state residents, but the state data makes no distinction between visitors and “snowbirds,” residents who live in the state for several months during the winter.
One of the state’s largest health networks, Jackson Health System, announced earlier this week that it began restricting the vaccine to U.S. residents by asking people who did not have picture ID issued by the U.S. government to provide another proof of U.S. residency.
“Jackson wanted to ensure ready access to the vaccine for anyone who lives in the United States, regardless of where in the country they live or their immigration status, but to ensure the vaccine is not distributed to ‘vaccine tourism,'” the health network said Tuesday in a statement.
The hospital network adopted the change a week after its CEO Carlos Migoya said the focus was to prevent the spread of the illness “whether you happen to be a citizen from another country or this country.”