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Expat Americans Fly Home for Covid-19 Vaccination Shots

17/04/2021 10:59am

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By Stu Woo | Photographs by Betty Laura Zapata for The Wall Street Journal 

LONDON -- Frustrated by slow and uncertain vaccination drives around the world, some of the nine million Americans living abroad are coming home to get their Covid-19 shots.

For many, the risks of a long journey home are worth the reward of a vaccine that offers protection and peace of mind. But the trip also comes with the anguish and moral ambiguity of leaving behind friends, colleagues and even spouses who might not get access to a shot for months because they don't hold a passport from the world's wealthiest country.

"I've definitely seen people talk about vaccine tourism," said Chloe Zeitounian, a 32-year-old American actor in London who visited the U.S. earlier this month. "That's basically what I did."

The U.S. and U.K. are roughly on par in vaccination rates, but recent supply disruptions have slowed Britain's rollout for younger people. The country is also relying heavily on a shot developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca PLC. Regulators here have restricted people under 30 from receiving it because of a possible link to rare but potentially serious blood clots. Ms. Zeitounian preferred to avoid that one, which isn't distributed in the U.S.

As she stood in line at a New Orleans convention center and learned it was offering a dose of the two-shot vaccine from Moderna Inc., she called her British husband in London. "Is what I'm doing right?" asked Ms. Zeitounian, who was in the U.S. to apply for a visa. She plans to get her second dose on a U.S. business trip later this year unless she gets it in Britain first.

In the vaccine rollout's early days in the U.S., there were short supplies, booking difficulties and confusion over who could get a shot. But the U.S. drive has recently accelerated, with 38% of adults having received at least one shot and 24% fully vaccinated.

A tipping point for many expats came when they saw President Biden set April 19 as the date all adults in the U.S. would be eligible for a shot. Reinforcing the image of widespread access was a parade of friends back home sharing jubilant vaccine selfies on Facebook and Instagram.

"They're getting vaccinated right and left," said Cheryl Walling, a 61-year-old retiree in Spain, speaking of her compatriots back in Arizona. "I'm jealous. I'm so jealous."

Ms. Walling and her husband retired to the beach town of Rota a year ago to spend time with their daughter, their U.S. Navy-serving son-in-law and two grandchildren. They planned to house-sit across Europe afterward.

Since the pandemic hit, they have seldom left the house they share with their daughter's family. "I feel like we're a burden," she said. "You don't want your parents living with you for a long time." Spain has so far administered at least one dose to 19% of its population.

As of last month, her area was inoculating only people over 70, so Ms. Walling decided it was time to risk a three-legged flight to get vaccinated in Tucson. They plan to depart on May 15 unless Spain offers shots before then.

"We're in that vulnerable age group," she said. "We really need to get vaccinated."

A spokesman for the State Department said it doesn't provide data on overseas Americans traveling to the U.S. He said Americans abroad should follow local and U.S. public-health guidelines when considering options on how to get vaccinated, including Centers for Disease Control and Prevention travel recommendations for testing and self-quarantine.

Rules on who can get shots vary by state, making it difficult to say for sure whether an American traveling back can get one easily just by landing. Many countries, meanwhile, restrict foreign travel. England, for example, forbids international vacations but allows residents to travel abroad with a reasonable excuse, such as business trips and funerals.

Some Americans are also hesitant to return to the U.S. to get vaccinated because that might complicate their receiving "vaccine passports" in their residence countries that could be required for entry into restaurants or for travel.

On Facebook groups for American expats, people trade advice on navigating the local and American requirements for traveling to the U.S., as well as tips for booking vaccinations. The appointment website for CVS Health Corp., the big pharmaceutical chain offering vaccines, doesn't work outside the U.S., for example, and some regions require a local identification card. Others require nothing.

In suburban Tokyo, Kat Callahan was fed up with the glacial vaccination pace in Japan, where about 1% of the population has gotten a dose. The 37-year-old civics teacher and union organizer has underlying health conditions and felt increasingly uncomfortable about taking progressively crowded trains into the city for meetings that had to be held in person. "I don't feel comfortable going out," she said.

Then she saw that New Mexico, where she maintains legal residency, was a vaccination leader. She checked that appointments were plentiful, and booked a five-week trip to Albuquerque that starts later this month. "New Mexico got their stuff together, and I knew I wouldn't be burdening any fellow Americans," she said. "There is a shot with my name on it."

In Berlin, Lucas Mathis booked a flight next month to see his parents in Oklahoma City. He plans to get fully vaccinated while he's there. Germany, which has given at least one dose to 18% of its population, shows no signs of easing lockdown measures. His daily routine of isolation and meandering walks was driving him bananas.

"The idea of going out to eat on a restaurant's patio and having tacos with my parents sounds like a trip to Disneyland at this point," said the 33-year-old computer programmer. "I feel like I might cry when it happens."

Getting vaccinated in Oklahoma would ease his mind upon returning to Germany, he said, knowing he was less likely to get ill or spread disease when grocery shopping. His friends support his decision, as does his Canadian wife, whose home country has a 22% vaccination rate.

Mr. Mathis is still uneasy. "It's going to be kind of weird to be the only person in my friend group here with a vaccine once I return," he said.

Dr. Robert Truog, director of the Center for Bioethics at Harvard Medical School, said expats shouldn't torture themselves, as long as they don't break any rules for traveling and vaccinations. One analogy he cites: Many registered nurses felt guilty for getting vaccinated early, even though they weren't dealing with patients and weren't technically on the front line of the pandemic.

"For you to feel guilty about this I think is wrong," he said. "You should be proud that you're following the rules."

On a Facebook group for Americans in London, Matt Heligman shared his experience of getting his first dose in the U.S. earlier this month. "I don't get a lot of thanks for that because a lot of people just criticize me for traveling," said Mr. Heligman, the 39-year-old chief operating officer of an interior-design company. "Some people might say it's jumping the queue."

Mr. Heligman disagrees. His job requires frequent travel between the U.K. and U.S., and appointments for both the first and second dose, which he'll get when he returns to the U.S. later this month, happened to line up with business trips. He said getting inoculated helps protect the people he encounters while traveling, while also helping Britons.

"That's two doses I'm taking that [England's National Health Service] doesn't have to administer," he said.

Write to Stu Woo at Stu.Woo@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

April 17, 2021 05:44 ET (09:44 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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