In Search of a Vaccine, Some Tourists Find Luck in the Caribbean

This boom has been aided by the fact that since March 1, everyone over 16 has been eligible to get the vaccine in the Virgin Islands — so tourists don’t even have to worry about cutting in line. The territory accommodates about 100 walk-ins each day, too. “Nowhere else in the U.S. can you actually just walk in and get the vaccine, anybody over 16,” Mr. Bryan said on Monday. On March 1, the islands also opened two federally supported community vaccination centers on St. Thomas and St. Croix.

U.S. travelers also face less red tape when visiting the U.S. Virgin Islands compared with other Caribbean destinations. If they submit a negative coronavirus test within five days of leaving for the territory, or a positive antibody test taken within four months, they do not have to quarantine upon arrival. Travelers to Jamaica and Barbados, in contrast, are asked to quarantine no matter what. And U.S. travelers can’t visit the Cayman Islands unless they conform to strict eligibility criteria.

Dr. Hunte-Ceasar said that, at this point, the Department of Health did not consider vaccine tourism to be a problem. “We definitely want to ensure the local residents get vaccinated,” she said. But “we have not had any shortages by serving both populations.” The Virgin Islands currently have 27,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, 18,900 doses of the Moderna vaccine, and 600 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine available, said Monife Stout, the department’s immunization director.

Noreen Michael, a scientist at the University of the Virgin Islands who studies health disparities, agreed that it was crucial to ensure that vaccines are available to residents who want them, but said she had not seen evidence to suggest that tourists are taking vaccines away from residents who want them. “On the public health side, it’s a plus,” she said. “On the equity side, I don’t see it as significant issue.”

Perhaps, too, vaccine tourism could be used as a force for good — to secure doses for marginalized groups in other regions. Although the Virgin Islands provide free Covid-19 vaccines, the islands could charge tourists for their vaccines, and the funds could be used to send vaccines to regions that need them, said Felicia Knaul, an international health economist at the University of Miami. “Could we send those vaccines to Jamaica, or to the Dominican Republic or Haiti?” she asked. “Once you’ve gotten past the key welfare and human rights aspects, if you can use that funding to pay for people who right now have no access, I think it’s worth thinking about.”

For now, health authorities are focused on ways to reduce vaccine hesitancy in the territory. “People access misinformation and perpetuate lies and things that are harmful,” Dr. Hunte-Ceasar said in a news conference last week. As a result, the islands have been experiencing a surge in cases and hospitalizations that she said give her “chest pain and heartburn every night.” Although vaccine hesitancy does seem to be decreasing, residents will need to start widely embracing the vaccine if the islands are to meet their goal of vaccinating 50,000 Virgin Islanders by July 1.

In the meantime, visitors from the continental U.S. will continue to take advantage of the extra doses. Some have stayed longer than they planned, too — and have even contemplated moving to the islands for good.

“I started falling in love with the culture of St. Croix,” said Hemal Trivedi, a documentary filmmaker who lives in Weehawken, N.J., and was vaccinated in St. Croix in February. “Toward the end of the trip, we were actually looking for a place to buy.”

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