Snowbirds complicate vaccine rollout

Despite a raging second wave of COVID-19 and travel restrictions to contain its spread, many older Canadians have made their annual winter migration south. While it is hard to begrudge anyone the chance to escape a Canadian winter, the estimated 375,000 snowbirds who travel annually to the U.S. and Mexico will likely complicate Canada’s response to the coronavirus, including the rollout of vaccines.

While two vaccines – one from Pfizer and the other from Moderna – have been approved in Canada and enough doses have been ordered to ensure every Canadian can be vaccinated, delivery will take time. Priority will largely go to those most at risk, including older Canadians in long-term care homes and frontline health workers. But the U.S., which provided massive funding for development through its “Operation Warp Speed,” has been among the first in line to receive vaccines.

As a result, Canadian snowbirds in the U.S. are now receiving these vaccines sooner than they would have had they stayed in Canada and before Canadians with similar or greater risks to COVID-19 infection. Putting aside the question of fairness to Americans who are also queueing up for these vaccines and the massive strains on their health system, there are good reasons to be concerned at the prospect of Canadian snowbirds seeking to become vaccinated as quickly as they can.

The first issue is that both of the vaccines approved thus far in Canada and the U.S. require two doses about four weeks apart. This raises the prospect of Canadian snowbirds receiving a first dose in the U.S. and then needing a second upon returning home. If they are unable to receive this second dose on time, they may have to re-start the vaccination process, potentially wasting one of the precious doses at a time when they are most needed. On the other hand, giving snowbirds priority for a second vaccine dose upon returning home raises the question of fairness for Canadians who did not travel abroad.

Second, Canadian snowbirds receiving vaccines abroad will further complicate the already difficult issue of creating a dynamic vaccine registry to track who gets what vaccine and when. This registry is needed to ensure that Canadians get their second dose on time, track vaccine uptake and herd immunity and identify any issues with side effects or loss of efficacy over time. All of this is already hard enough but if large numbers of Canadians are getting one or both vaccine doses abroad, completing a registry becomes considerably more difficult.

Finally, vaccines aren’t free or free from complications. While COVID-19 vaccine side effects have been rare, there have been issues with severe allergic reactions to the Pfizer vaccine in particular, in some cases requiring hospitalization. Moreover, while these vaccines have been promised to be free for Americans, it is possible that non-Americans will be charged and that even Americans will face administrative costs for receiving the vaccine. If Canadian snowbirds lack adequate travel insurance or savings to meet these needs, they will need to seek help from their provincial governments and Canadian taxpayers, especially in the case of emergency hospitalization and medevac back home.

In general, these issues aren’t new. Travel abroad by Canadians, especially seasonal stays by older Canadians, has always raised issues like ensuring that medical records are complete and fairness in paying for care. Many of these practical and ethical issues arising from the coming vaccine rush are entirely foreseeable. What is needed is for Canadian health authorities, provincial governments and our federal leaders to plan for these complications now. This will require reaching out to snowbird communities and associations to provide guidance on if and how they should seek vaccination and what will be required of them upon returning home.

New vaccine approvals are giving us hope this winter but now is the time to prepare for a still-challenging spring that includes the return of Canadian snowbirds from the U.S.

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  • Lorne Goldman says:

    I am a Canadian expat (5 years) of 72 with multiple prior conditions. I surrendered my health card (as the Canadian governments require) and still pay substantial taxes. I cannot be vaccinated where I am (Ecuador) for the foreseeable future. Can I be vaccinated if I return to Canada? Quebec says no, insisting that I quarantine (no problem), find a residence for 3 months and only then apply for to renew my Medicare card…with a substantial. Ontario says I can be vaccinated upon showing my Canadian passport but no one knows about it and their public service gets angry when I mentioned it. There are close to 3 million Canadian expats and we do not all live in Fort Lauderdale.

  • cheryl McLaughlin says:

    if a Canadian has received 2 doses of Covid vaccine in the USA do they still need to quarantine in a hotel after flying??

  • Eileen McIntyre says:

    I am 93 years old in Manitoba when can I expect to get the covid vaccine

  • Gladys Divell says:

    Here is my comment to all of you. You all should be happy that we are receiving the vaccine and stopping the spread, here in the USA and when we return to Canada. All vaccines that are given here are submitted to the CDC. so are you telling me that Canada does not get updated from the CDC on who receives the vaccines? If so then FIX it,

    We all receive a vaccine card saying we have received both vaccines, we can give a copy to our Doctor when we retlurn.
    When we left Canada last |November there was no restrictions on us flying to the USA where we own a property. Thank goodness the USA uses commen sense when administering their vaccine. All they are interested in is stopping the spread, they don’t even question gilving it to people out of couttry or out of their state, as many thousands of US persons from northern states migrate to their southern places dluring the winter.

    If our incompentant government had got their act together and worked with President Trump, who by the way, everyone should be thanking for their vaccine, maybe we would have received vaccines earlier than we have, instead of being on the back burner.

    So all you hypocrites that hated Trump, get to the back of the line. Quit picking on the seniors, the ones who are most vulnerable to this disease and start using your time to get on the governments back to get more vaccines quicker.

  • LN says:

    I don’t see a problem with Canadians in the US receiving Covid-19 vaccines, and neither do the Americans. I feel like you are trying very hard to create one, however. You seem to be laying a whole lot of blame on Snowbirds for something that does not even exist, and I do not follow your reasoning. Ask the federal government why we are still waiting for vaccines. Canadian Snowbirds receiving the Covid-19 vaccine in the US will not pose a concern for either country. They don’t need to be scolded.

  • Verginia Aiello says:

    I write to you as a snowbird. And no, I am not currently in Florida but will heading south as soon as things settle down there and here. I read your article and it is very clear that you have a total lack of understanding on this topic both with snowbirds rushing to get vaccinated and of the snowbird community overall. Firstly, you state that snowbirds are rushing to Florida. No we are not. The governor of Florida has put out a plea to us that it is safe to go down – honestly- they miss the dollars that snowbirds put into Florida each and every year. This is why an incentive was put forth – ability to get vaccinated – we pay taxes (very high) in the USA as most Americans do – so why would we not be eligible to get the vaccine sooner? If you did your research properly, you would know that 60% of Americans are opting to NOT get vaccinated (political reasons) – so who are we taking the vaccine away from? Also to be noted, the governor of New York State actually applied a batch of vaccine due to disorganized process to rollout the vaccine – so I ask again, what American are we taking away the right to a vaccine from?
    Secondly, do you honestly believe that snowbirds are so stupid to think that we would take the 2nd dose here in Canada? Do you not think that snowbirds would ensure both doses are taken BEFORE heading back home? It’s only 28 days difference between the two doses – most snowbirds are in Florida for 6 months. So your argument has absolutely no bearing whatsoever. You are just filling space. Thirdly, the vaccines that are authorized for distribution in the USA are IDENTICAL to those authorized for distribution in Canada, hence a registry of vaccine type date and time can be brought back to Canada so it can be entered into our health care system. Is that so cumbersome? Really? I think you had nothing to write about so pick on the snowbirds. In future please get your facts straight before writing about a group that you know nothing about.

  • Amy Lee says:

    I think this really loses sight of Canada’s multicultural nature. Many Canadians are dual citizens and live in other countries as expats which are in the millions, let alone the snowbirds. COVID-19 is an international problem and as another commenter pointed out herd immunity is global herd immunity, not Canadian herd immunity. Is it privilege that Canada thinks it can impose its ethical framework for distribution to another country? I think another country might say it’s more ethical to vaccinate all who live in slums first, or all who work in precarious jobs with no medical benefits and no paid sick days first. The question of documentation is no different than any other documentation when people immigrate, move for a job, or change identity. Why is this particular documentation being highlighted as a problem? No one even knows how long the vaccine effectiveness will last. The question could very well be moot.

  • Philip Russel says:

    A mayor in south Florida was addressing this issue of visitors getting the vaccine. He specifically identified snowbirds and while they are not permanent residents, they are here for extended periods and if they were to get sick, they too would just clog up the hospital system. As for concerns about a registry, if such a database is designed without taking these people in mind, fire the DB designer. Our family is mixed – some American, some Canadian. Taking issue with the fact that I have already started receiving the vaccine sounds like either sour grapes or suggests that you don’t have enough to think about.

  • John Adams says:

    The limited supply situation is the direct responsibility of policy failures of the Canadian federal government – including the misadventure with the Chinese government of the supply of product for a non-existent clinical trial – when compared to the performance of many other national governments including Israel, UK, Germany and USA. Therefore it is unreasonable and unfair to blame or penalize snowbirds for this policy failure. The idea of herd immunity suggests good policy means vaccination of all in each jurisdiction no matter status on basis of residency. 350,000 snowbirds vaccinated abroad would have the effect of an early increase in supply of vaccines available in Canada for non-snowbirds.

  • Randy Filinski says:

    These are personal reasons to head south and the snowbirds need to accept the responsibility of their choice in a very limited supply environment. They need to be appropriately put in a phase where supply is plentiful after all essential workers who stayed home to protect us have both their doses.

    This is the ethical decision.


Jeremy Snyder


Jeremy Snyder is a researcher with Simon Fraser University’s Medical Tourism Research Group.

Valorie A. Crooks


Valorie A. Crooks is a professor in the Department of Geography at Simon Fraser University. She holds the Canada Research Chair in Health Service Geographies.