Some Canadian snowbirds are chartering private planes to head to Florida during the winter where anyone over age 65 is able to get vaccinated for COVID-19 right now.
Ontario couple Annie and Ralph say they have travelled south for the winter for "several years," and despite travel advisories from the federal government, decided this year would be no different.
Annie explained in a telephone interview with CTV News from Florida that lockdowns in Ontario had left them cooped up in their home during the colder months.
"There was no activities, and we couldn't even really go for walks every day because everything is so icy and cold, we were kind of stuck in the home all the time… and we had heard that we could be eligible for [the vaccine] in Florida if we came down here," Annie explained.
The couple has asked CTV News not to use their last names to preserve their privacy.
Annie is over age 65 and Ralph is over age 70. Neither has any major health issues except for high blood pressure. With the slow pace of Canada's COVID-19 vaccine rollout, the couple estimated they would have to wait until April or later before being vaccinated.
However, Florida adjusted its vaccination plan in December to include non-citizen seniors aged 65 or older in the first phase of inoculations with the only requirement being identification to receive a shot at no cost. The change in criteria has since increased demand, prompting long lineups and difficulties booking appointments in the state.
Arizona health officials have also confirmed that snowbirds will be eligible to receive the vaccine as local residents of the same age and health category.
Ralph explained that the couple had to fly south for their mental well-being, but says the potential of getting vaccinated so soon against the novel coronavirus was an added incentive.
When the opportunity came up to buy seats on a private jet, the couple decided travelling to the U.S. amid the pandemic would be worth it.
The couple flew with four other passengers on a private flight with Momentum Jets, which charters jets and has recently started selling individual seats on them amid a spike in demand from snowbirds looking to travel south.
"We've had a huge demand. Over the past three weeks, it’s been a consistent flow of inquiries that we're trying to pair people up right now on flights… just to keep it even more safe within their travel bubble," Janelle Brind, vice-president of Momentum Jets, said in an interview with CTV News.
Brind explained that flying private means Canadians can bypass airport security lines and busy boarding gates, limiting their exposure to others. As well, everyone who flies with the company is required to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test before take off.
"We felt very safe that we didn't have to go to an airport and have all the worries that go along with that many people," Annie said.
Brind noted that customers don't always disclose their reason for flying, but said about 20 passengers have confirmed they were flying to Florida to get the COVID-19 vaccine. She added that inquiries have been increasing since mid-December.
"This is not just people that are going to stay down in Florida, this is even people that were willing to go down with a couple of days to get the vaccine and then fly home again," Brind said.
While purchasing individual seats on a private plane is more affordable than chartering the entire jet, Brind says a seat can set someone back $2,500 to $4,000, depending on the size of the aircraft.
She added that private flights have also been booked for the sole purpose of getting the COVID-19 vaccine, with private charters costing anywhere from $25,000 up to $80,000 per trip.
While travelling to get the COVID-19 vaccine may be worth it to some, Toronto-based travel insurance broker Martin Firestone says there are still major risks with travelling abroad during a global pandemic.
Firestone told CTVNews.ca he advises his clients that now is not the time to travel and recommends they don’t go.
"My biggest concern is not the plane or getting COVID on the plane, my worry is access to the hospital down there once you're there for the things that always went wrong and that's why you bought travel insurance -- broken hips, car accidents, stroke, heart attack," Firestone said in a telephone interview on Thursday.
However, he says people are jetting off anyways.
Firestone, who caters to Canadian snowbirds, estimates that approximately 30 per cent of his clientele travelled to Florida in November and says he has seen an additional 10 per cent in inquiries in the last two weeks since Florida adjusted its vaccine requirements.
"There has been an uptick no question, and every day is even more," he said. He added that the slow pace of vaccine rollout in Canada has made a "very interesting alternative" for seniors.
"I see people now going down because they're being influenced by their friends who have been down there since November, and this is the final incentive they needed to go down there and get the vaccine. To them, that's all that matters at this point," Firestone said.
However, the Canadian Snowbirds Association said in an emailed statement to CTVNews.ca that it "has not seen an increase in snowbirds looking to travel" to the U.S. to get vaccinated.
"Most snowbirds have already made a determination on whether or not to travel this season, with the vast majority of snowbirds choosing to stay home due to the pandemic," the organization said Thursday.
While insurance companies now offer coverage for COVID-19, Firestone warned that not all are covering possible adverse reactions from the vaccines since the shots are considered elective.
"Imagine if you were down there and then for whatever reason an allergic [reaction] or something just didn't jibe, you end up God forbid in a hospital bed and it's linked to the fact that you had the vaccine, you could be out a lot of money," Firestone said.
Flying down south for a vaccination raises the issue of fairness because some Americans might not receive the vaccine if it is being sold to Canadians, according to ethicist Colleen Flood.
“From the Canadian perspective, the people flying to the south are not taking the vaccine from any other Canadian. If they were queue jumping within Canada, that would be a problem as they may be jumping ahead of those we have determined to be of higher need,” said Flood, university research chair in health law and policy at the University of Ottawa.
But Flood says she doesn’t think Ottawa is in a position to intervene.
“I don’t think it is really the duty of the Canadian government or provincial governments to stop Canadians travelling to do this, but it may be that the U.S. administration or state governments may wish to limit the ability of foreign nationals accessing vaccines before their own people are vaccinated,” she said.
While Annie and Ralph plan on getting inoculated, they haven’t done so yet. Annie says they plan to wait a few weeks for line-ups to die down before booking their appointments.
"We feel that we wait a couple of weeks, the rush will be over and we can probably call [for an appointment] very easily and go and get our vaccine," she said.
Annie laments jumping ahead of the line for a COVID-19 vaccine, but said she and Ralph decided to travel before knowing they would have the chance to be vaccinated.
"That would have been us if we were in Canada, but we made the choice before we heard about the vaccinations for Canadians to come down anyway, because we felt safe here in this community," she said.