“They’re giving out vaccines like candy down there”: These Torontonians are travelling to the States to get their shots
With vaccines in short supply, immunity-hungry Toronto residents are quietly flocking to the U.S. to get their shots. We spoke with four vaccine border-hoppers about why they’re making the trip.
Natasha Freidus, start-up CEO
“I’m American, but my husband, Andrew, has dual citizenship. After living in France for a few years, we moved to Toronto in 2018 with our two kids—we were attracted to the booming tech scene, and we refused to move back to the U.S. for several reasons, including Trump. A couple of weeks ago, as the Covid cases in Toronto kept soaring, we started to seriously consider crossing the border to get our vaccines. We were hoping to fly to Seattle this summer to visit family we haven’t seen since 2019, and we wanted to get vaccinated as soon as possible. We figured best-case scenario we would be able to get our first shot here in early May, but everything pointed toward the second shot not being available until at least July or August. We didn’t want to wait.
“I had heard from a friend that Ohio doesn’t have a residency requirement, so we decided to drive there to get vaccinated. We figured we’d go to the closest city in Ohio—a place called Ashtabula, a four-hour drive away. I’d never heard of it before. We had originally planned to get the Johnson and Johnson shot because you only need the one, but right as we were about to cross the border, the pharmacy called saying they’d no longer be able to give us the J&J because there were issues with the vaccine. Five hundred metres from the border, we pulled over at Tim Hortons to figure out Plan B. Fortunately, we were able to find a Rite Aid in Ashtabula that had open appointments for Pfizer. The kids were in the car the whole time with their headphones on, blissfully unaware.
“We walked into the Rite Aid, they asked us for ID, and we showed them our passports. They asked if we had insurance, and we said no. They said, ‘Okay no problem, go get your shot.’ It was so easy and we didn’t have to pay anything. We were in and out in five minutes. We got Burger King afterwards and probably only spent a couple of hours in Ohio.
“After we got the shot, we drove straight to Binghamton, New York, where my family in the States—all vaccinated—had rented three cabins so we could see each other in a distanced manner. We had initially planned to spend the weekend there and return to Toronto on Sunday to quarantine. But when the province locked down and school went online, we figured we may as well spend three weeks in the U.S. and get the second dose before going back. Luckily, a friend of ours had an empty house in central New York where we’re staying while we ride out the next few weeks.
“Even though we’re now eligible for AstraZeneca in Ontario, I’m still glad we got it over with. Especially since we were able to squeeze in a few days with family we haven’t seen in years. It was a lot of stress and driving and decision-making, and it will involve three Covid tests and a two-week quarantine to cross back into Canada, but we’re happy to be returning fully vaccinated. I hope that all U.S. states drop the residency requirement, and that Canada speeds up the vaccine rollout.”
Emily Thiagaraj, lawyer
“Earlier this year, my law firm in Oakland, California, opened up an office in Toronto, so my husband and I relocated here in February. I’m in a Facebook group called ExPat Americans in Toronto and noticed some people in the group talking about how Pennsylvania doesn’t have residency requirements for people to get the vaccine. I looked into it, and we did not need to establish residency to schedule an appointment, so we made an appointment in Erie for the first week of April. The night before, there were still 20 or 30 available for the next day. I checked multiple CVSes and Walgreens and all of them had appointments. It doesn’t seem like people are fighting to get vaccine slots in certain counties in the U.S.
”It’s about a three-hour drive from Toronto. We picked up some vegan doughnuts in Buffalo on the way there, which was probably the highlight of the trip. Getting the vaccine was super easy. I showed them my passport and my social security card, but they didn’t seem to care too much about it, other than to make sure I was scheduled for my second dose. They gave me the CDC card with all the information about the Pfizer vaccine on it, then I filled out my name and the pharmacist gave me the shot. He told me to walk around the store for 10 to 15 minutes to make sure I felt fine, then I left. My husband and I scheduled our doses 30 minutes apart, so he waited in the car with our five-year-old daughter while I got my shot and I waited with her while he got his.
“The biggest obstacle was finding a place to get fast PCR Covid test results so we could re-enter Canada. We got a swab at another CVS but they said it could take up to four days to get our results. There was a place in Amherst, New York, that guaranteed results within 24 hours or less, so we drove there to get a second test. While we waited for our results, we stayed at a hotel in Amherst. The results came in around 18 hours later and as soon as we had them we re-entered Canada. We had to quarantine when we got back, which was unfortunate because we had just quarantined when we moved here in in February, but it was worth it. Given the third wave, it’s not like we’d be going anywhere.
“I don’t see any virtue in waiting to get the vaccine in Toronto when there are plenty available in America. Plus, getting vaccinated there means that two people in Canada can get their vaccines earlier in Canada. I went to the bank yesterday and the teller told me he hadn’t been vaccinated, even though he’s interacting with people every day. It just seems like Canada really needs more vaccines, so we felt comfortable not taking any vaccines from Canada’s limited supply
“We’ll be headed back to the U.S. shortly to get our second shot. I’m nervous about waiting longer than the recommended time for the Pfizer shot. That’s a risk I don’t want to take, especially since we have no support system to care for my daughter if my husband and I were to get sick.”
Andrew Sepielli, professor
“My wife and I are both American citizens living in Canada—she’s a lawyer and I teach philosophy at U of T. We’re both lucky enough to work from home, but we have two young kids in school and we don’t know what other kids and their parents are doing. That made us feel vulnerable, so we decided to drive down to the U.S. to get vaccinated on March 31.
“I’m from Philadelphia, so I was hoping we could stay with my mom and get vaccinated there—she hasn’t seen her grandchildren in a year and a half. But unlike the rest of the state, Philadelphia has a residency requirement for vaccination.
“I found a website called VaccinatePA that lists open appointment slots. I saw that there were some at a Walmart pharmacy in Harborcreek, Pennsylvania, and signed us both up. Really, there were loads of available slots all over the area. Before driving to the U.S., I called the pharmacy to make sure it was okay that I was coming from Canada. Then I had to figure out where to get a rapid Covid test that could turn around results quickly before we came back to Canada. I also booked us an AirBnB in Dunkirk, N.Y., for the night before we got our vaccines so we wouldn’t be too rushed.
“When we arrived in Harborcreek, we just walked into the Walmart and got the vaccine. It was striking how easy it was—especially given the mad rush to get vaccinated in the GTA. We drove back to Toronto that day and quarantined for two weeks. It was a little difficult with two kids in the house, but we got through it.
“Going to the U.S. to get vaccinated is actually helping Canada, because the more people here who are vaccinated, the better—as long as you’re not jumping in line, which I don’t think I am. I’m an American citizen and they’re giving vaccines away down there like candy.”
Alyssa Johnston, wedding florist
“My parents live in Muncie, Indiana, and my mom has cancer. She just finished her last round of radiation treatments and is still undergoing chemo. Not being able to visit her throughout the pandemic has been tough. My son is her only grandson and she hasn’t seen him since he was three—he’s now five. When schools went virtual, I decided to take a road trip with my son and visit my parents for the first time in 16 months. I told them I was coming home on a Tuesday. I was on the road by Wednesday, and by Thursday, I had a vaccine appointment at Ball Memorial Hospital in Muncie, Indiana. I’m staying with my parents for just shy of a month so I can get the second dose and come back to Canada fully vaccinated.
“Indiana has done an amazing job at the vaccine rollout. They’ve absolutely killed it. They have a statewide website where I type in my zip code, and it shows me all the vaccine centres in my area by what vaccine they’re giving—Johnson and Johnson, Moderna or Pfizer—so I can shop for a vaccine, if you will. Then I click on wherever I want to go, it takes me to their scheduling platform, and I can book an appointment. It’s seamless and easy.
“When I got to the hospital I walked in, did a health screening, then went upstairs where they checked my name off the list. I sat down in a chair and within two minutes, I had my vaccine. They sat me down in another chair, set a 15-minute timer, and when the timer went off, I went to another table to schedule my second appointment, then went home. I was at the hospital for probably a total of 18 minutes.
“I got my shot in the U.S. because I didn’t have any faith I’d be able to get the shot in Ontario any time soon. I’m 36 and don’t have any underlying health issues, so there was really no light at the end of the tunnel for me. And even if there was, I still don’t like the idea of getting the second dose four, five, six months later.
“Reuniting with my mom after over a year was incredibly emotional. This is her third bout with cancer, and not being able to see her grandson has been really, really hard on her. She’s obsessed with him. I’ll be in my room doing some work, and I’ll just hear just my mom and my son giggling in the other room.
“I’ve been doing most of the grocery shopping and cooking for my parents because my mom is tired and I want to give my dad a break. The other day I was at the pharmacy to pick some stuff up with my mom and the lady at the checkout asked, ‘Hey, do you know anyone who would like a Pfizer vaccine?’ I told her I’d already had mine and she said, ‘We have a lot of open appointments.’ I was taken aback because I know people in Canada who would give their left foot for an appointment, and in America they can’t even fill up all the spots.”