MOIBLE, Ala. (WALA) – Georgia so far has not expanded COVID-19 vaccine eligibility to educators, which has prompted some teachers to drive hours to vaccination sites in Alabama.
Meanwhile, some Alabama residents shut out of vaccinations by their state’s rules have gone elsewhere.
The practice, dubbed “vaccine tourism” has rankled some elected officials and others who believe the state should prioritize their own residents. But with unclear legality, states have come down on different sides of the issue.
“So it’s counterintuitive that the state of Alabama would be interested in protecting Georgia residents before all Alabama residents have the vaccine,” said University of Alabama professor Allen Linken, who nonetheless believes it is unconstitutional for states to impose residency requirements.
Linken said there are many good reasons why the state would want to prioritize its own citizens.
“It’s really bad public policy (to allow non-residents to get the vaccine),” he said. “I don’t think Alabama wants to advertise that its vaccine’s open to Georgia residents, because it wants to protect its stock, wants to protect Alabama residents as a main priority. … But I see the federal Constitution here trumping state interest.”
Linken cited Supreme Court precedents knocking down laws in various states limiting welfare benefits for people who have been residents for a certain period of time. The Constitution, he said, prohibits states from restricting residents from traveling across their borders.
“It’s not something that plays well in the media,” he said. “It’s not something that plays well for re-election.”
Alabama health officials have adopted that legal interpretation.
“As long as individuals meet the criteria for which the Alabama Department of Public Health is specified for vaccination, we will vaccinate individuals,” Mobile County Health Officer Dr. Bert Eichold said at Monday’s briefing.
Other states have taken a different view, however. Georgia officials have reserved COVID-19 vaccine for residents and non-residents who work in the state.
After hearing criticism of people from other states coming to Florida for the vaccine, Gov. Ron DeSantis last month restricted eligibility to full- or part-time residents.
But nothing stops Florida residents from coming to Alabama. Like Georgia, the Sunshine State has not made the vaccine available to educators based on occupation. That might make the Mobile area an attractive destination.
The issue has come up before. Some officials have complained about snowbirds jumping ahead of full-time residents for the scarce vaccine.
But public health officials have said they have seen a relatively small number of people coming from out of states. Supply remains extremely limited for residents and non-residents, alike. Eichold noted that is agency this week will be giving the vaccine only to people who have the first doses.
While some teachers are coming to Alabama, the phenomenon works in reverse, too. Alabama does not factor in people’s underlying health conditions as part of its eligibility rules. That means Theodore resident Marne Yarbrough was not allowed to get the vaccine in his home state. But he said he was able to make an appointment with the Mississippi Department of Public Health, which does prioritize people who have had organ transplants and are taking drugs to suppress their immune systems in order to prevent rejection.
Yarbrough said he was able to get his first dose last week at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum in Biloxi.
“Alabama could take some lessons from the way Mississippi’s doing it. … The Air National Guard was administering the program,” he said.
Yarbrough said the getting the first dose he wasn’t allowed to receive in his home state gives him a measure of relief.
“Obviously, if it works, it’s gonna be a big peace of mind,” he said.