COVID Vaccination Tourists Flock From Colombia to New York to Get Their Shot at Safety

Jonathan Steven Bolaños traveled to New York in July to find his biological father and get vaccinated against COVID-19.

The 34-year-old electrician from Colombia managed to do both.

His dual mission was spurred by a shortage of doses back home, where his wife and their two young children are among countless thousands still waiting for shots amid near-countrywide turmoil.  

“Here [in New York], the younger generation are the future,” Bolaños said. “My country is still lost, trying to figure out who they are and thus, can’t make up their minds on who to vaccinate first.

“The vaccine is so close but it feels so far,” he added. “Right now, they are vaccinating ages 50 and up. Who knows when my number is going to get called?”

Bolaños is among the Colombians and other South Americans with ties to New York and the ability to scrape up enough money to travel who have become vaccine tourists.

In May, Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city wanted to “make it easy” for domestic visitors to be  “taken care of” by providing mobile vaccination sites.  In late June, when THE CITY asked about international vaccine tourists, both the mayor and Health Commissioner Dr. Dave Choksi said they had “not heard that report before.” 

New York State does not have a plan to expand its vaccination efforts to international visitors and there are no hard statistics on the number of shot-seekers coming from abroad. 

Yet anecdotal evidence points to growing numbers of people flocking to the city since May in search of securing their and their families’ well-being — and catching some sights while they’re here.

‘Appropriate and Fair’

Columbia University-based epidemiologist Dr. Ian Lipkin said it’s “appropriate and efficiently fair” to let folks from outside the U.S. come for a jab. As he and colleagues argued in a recent article for Foreign Affairs, “until the whole world is vaccinated, everyone is unsafe.”

He said fears of introducing variants shouldn’t come into play: “They’re already here,” he told THE CITY.

“You cannot put a plastic shield around the United States and prevent virus variants from coming in,” he said. 

According to statistics from Our World in Data, only 13% of the South American population is fully vaccinated, with Chile leading the pack at 55%. Colombia is fourth with 13.5%. 

In the case of Colombia, the seven-day average death count is at approximately 677.71 per million people, with an infection rate of more than 26,000 per million. 

Meanwhile, a delay in decision-making regarding distribution of the vaccine and the closure of pharmaceutical companies amid clashes with the country’s research and manufacturing efforts have spelled a dearth of shots.

In June, President Joe Biden vowed to help other countries worldwide via the United Nations-based COVAX program by donating 80 million COVID-19 vaccine doses.

But Colombians and citizens of other lagging nations have grown impatient with their home countries’ slow rollouts. 

Bolaños and others with the means to travel are taking the opportunity to get the best of both worlds: an upper hand in the battle against COVID-19 and a chance to enjoy the city as tourists start to trickle back.

He got his initial Pfizer shot at Queens Center Mall and so far has enjoyed looking up at buildings far taller than what he’s used to in his home city of Cali.

“I can see the buildings in Colombia at eye level but that one, I feel like I’m going to fall back because it’s so tall!” said Bolaños, referring to One World Trade Center.  He is now waiting for his second dose. 

Before the pandemic, the city had logged a record 67 million tourists in 2019. With pandemic restrictions easing, the city expects to welcome 36.4 million tourists by year’s end, with 4.6 million of them coming from other countries. That’s compared to the 22.3 million visitors, about 10%  from overseas, who visited in 2020.

NYC & Co., the city’s tourism arm, estimates that visitor numbers won’t hit pre-pandemic levels until 2025.

‘I Wanted It’

Dr. Marie Louise Bonnet works at a hospital in Colombia — but, like Bolaños, she had to come to New York to get vaccinated. 

“As soon as it came out, I wanted it,” said Bonnet, who serves patients at the  Fundación Santa Fe de Bogotá hospital in Colombia’s capital city. “The most important thing for me was to protect myself and the patients.” 

Bonnet, 27, is a native of France who graduated medical school in February 2020 from the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá and started a job immediately after. But because of a paperwork snafu, she was not able to squeeze into the group of doctors eligible for the vaccine. 

Bonnet came to New York in early April around Easter primarily to comfort her sister, who was stressed over the workload she had taken on as a graduate student.

But her sister also helped Bonnet, by searching for pharmacies with leftover doses. Bonnet eventually found a shot of the Pfizer vaccine at an Upper West Side Walgreens. 

“I didn’t care which one I got because I didn’t know if I would be able to get the second dose,” she said. “I just wanted it.”

She went back to work at the hospital after her first shot and flew back up just in time for the second dose.

Bonnet’s trip did not last long, but she found some time to get to know the city.

“I loved walking and jogging all around Manhattan and Brooklyn,” she said. “And I enjoyed eating. New York has such a diverse selection of foods.”

‘A Huge Relief’

Another doctor who got vaccinated to protect himself and his patients was 26-year-old Juan Pablo Espinosa. He also is a graduate from the Universidad de los Andes who works in Bogotá and couldn’t get vaccinated in Colombia because of a delay in his graduation date.

Several members of Espinosa’s family got infected with COVID-19 over the winter. His grandmother, he said, died from the virus in March. 

“That’s why I wanted to get vaccinated fast,” he said. “To avoid the worst.”

Espinosa received his first Pfizer dose in Knoxville, Tenn., and continued on to New York for his second during a family vacation with his grandfather and his girlfriend, a medical professional in the city. Next in line were Espinosa’s 12- and 15-year-old cousins, who also came to New York to get their shots.

“It was a huge relief to return to Colombia fully vaccinated,” he said. “I feel that I am much more protected from the virus and that the risk of catching it is much lower.” 

Still, he said, he is “very sad to see Colombia sunk in COVID cases and deaths and to see the hospital collapse due to the number of sick people.”

Son Meets Dad

For Bolaños, the situation is even more dire in Cali than in Bogotá, about 300 miles away. 

His hometown is embroiled in both a health crisis and months of civil unrest due to a rise in taxes amid the pandemic, making it harder for families like his to make ends meet. 

“There were riots every day and blood everywhere,” he said.

Bolaños told THE CITY he had long thought his father was dead, until one day at church somebody told him his dad lived in New York. He became badly depressed during the middle of the pandemic because he thought he would never get to see his father or his half-brother, whom he also had never met before. 

“I started looking for him on social media, found someone with his name on Facebook and met him through FaceTime four months ago,” he said “He looked just like me.”  

Bolaños’ father, James Lozano Arias, is a Queens resident who for years wondered what happened to the son that he had with a woman he’d dated for only a month. He tried looking for them but kept hitting roadblocks. Eventually, a call came in with the unfortunate news that Bolaños’ mother had died.

“But God’s timing is always perfect and he found me 33 years later,” he said. 

After the FaceTime call, Arias booked a trip to Cali to meet his son. Five seconds of eye contact was all they got before they were separated by security fending off rioters.

New York was the place to really get to know each other and both of them knew it. Arias brought his wife and son to the airport and as Bolaños walked out, he stopped and crouched.

“I stopped because this time it was real,” Bolaños said. “I was going to meet my dad the way I should’ve the first time.”

“We gave each other a really long hug, one that lasted up to seven minutes,” said the 70-year-old father. “I would’ve stayed in it longer to make up for all the lost years, but we couldn’t wait to get home.” 

On a beam at his new home-away-from-home hung a yellow poster on which Arias had written: “Welcome Son! This is your home. Thank you God for allowing us to share this happy moment that fills our hearts. WELCOME TO AMERICA… WE LOVE YOU!”

For Arias, it has been a “wonderful” experience so far getting closer to his son, showing him around and helping him get vaccinated.

“We have so much in common and I’m so thankful to God for bringing us together,” Arias said.

Now Bolaños is getting to see the sights in New York with his father, and is readying to go home protected against the disease that’s killed nearly four million people worldwide.

Bolaños hopes that his wife will be the next to make the trip to New York with their two kids, ages 18 months and 4-years-old, if the vaccination situation doesn’t improve in their homeland soon. But the family was determined that he got the first shot.

“I feel more confident and optimistic that it is almost the end of this nightmare that has taken so many lives,” Bolaños said. 

This article was originally posted on COVID Vaccination Tourists Flock From Colombia to New York to Get Their Shot at Safety

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