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Some Mexicans Find They Can Get COVID-19 Vaccines In The U.S.

NOEL KING, HOST:

The Biden administration has plans to send millions of doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine to Canada and to Mexico. That vaccine isn't authorized for use in the U.S. just yet. Mexico's been having trouble getting doses. People are waiting for months. But some rich and some well-connected Mexicans are coming to the U.S. to get their shots. Here's NPR's Carrie Kahn.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: David Gutierrez Inzunza knows firsthand how devastating the coronavirus pandemic has been in the Mexican border city of Tijuana, where he's a state health official.

DAVID GUTIERREZ INZUNZA: Ten months ago, I was dying. OK. I have my second call in life.

KAHN: He barely survived COVID and says only those who've had the disease know how he feels. He had to get his hand on a vaccine quickly, but most of Tijuana's limited supply is going to front-line hospital workers. So he looked for options and went across the border. Gutierrez switches to Spanish.

GUTIERREZ INZUNZA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "Now I'm vaccinated. I'm someone who won't infect a neighbor. That's really important," he says. Gutierrez was born in San Diego and has a California ID using his brother's home address there. I asked if anyone at the San Diego vaccination site he went to checked if he worked or resided in the county - requirements to get the vaccine.

GUTIERREZ INZUNZA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "No one asked me," he says. "But if they had, I would have told the truth."

There aren't exact numbers on how many Mexicans are getting shots in the U.S. Florida reported some 50,000 out-of-state residents receive vaccines before officials recently tightened ID requirements. Nevertheless, vaccine tourism has become a bit of a phenomenon in Mexico. It's easy to find testimonies and tips on social media and in chat groups about getting a vaccine in the U.S. Mexican TV host Juan Jose Origel boasts on Instagram about getting his second COVID dose in Miami.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JUAN JOSE ORIGEL: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "Officials never even asked for my visa," he laughs.

Seventy-year-old Mauricio Fernandez Garza, a mayoral candidate in Mexico's richest city, posted on Facebook about his vaccine trip to Texas. He says he got his shot while observing the U.S. rollout strategy. NPR also talked to a number of other people who would only share their experiences or their relative's experience of going to the U.S. to get vaccines as long as they weren't fully identified for fear of public backlash for cutting the line. Some of those people talked to me about taking trips to Texas, California and to the ski resort of Vail, Colo., for a shot. Kris Widlak, spokeswoman for Eagle County, where Vail is located, says to get a vaccine there, you have to attest to working or living in the county 30 days prior to vaccination and 30 days after.

KRIS WIDLAK: We expect you to be good citizens of the world and come in because you are eligible.

KAHN: She says the state guidelines are purposely broad so undocumented residents, many who work in the city's resorts, won't be discouraged from getting the vaccine.

WIDLAK: Chasing down people who may or may not be eligible after they appear to be eligible is probably not where we want to put our time and energy. We just want to get vaccine in arms.

KAHN: And she says with vaccine supplies increasing lately, there's less of a need to be so restrictive. That is definitely not the case in south Texas says State Representative Eddie Morales. His district includes eight counties right along the border. He's been struggling to get vaccines and fielding lots of complaints of foreign nationals jumping the line. Recently, he was told by county officials about a private plane with 12 Mexicans arriving in the small town of Pecos. They all got vaccinated.

EDDIE MORALES: It's these influential, you know, super rich Mexicans that have the means and are rigging the system.

KAHN: He wants residency rules to be tightened.

MORALES: To make sure that the folks here in Texas are getting vaccinated before we can continue caring for others and our neighbors.

KAHN: Mexico's president, however, believes the U.S. should help its neighbor now. The Biden administration will, quote, "loan" Mexico as many as 2.5 million doses. But the White House spokesperson said that the first priority remains vaccinating the U.S. population. David Gutierrez Inzunza, the state health official from Tijuana, says he gets U.S. rules and regulations.

GUTIERREZ INZUNZA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "But in this particular case," he says, "amid a worldwide pandemic, life and health of everyone should be priority No. 1."

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Tijuana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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