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Overseas Americans Are Desperate To Get COVID-19 Vaccines


Millions of Americans live abroad, many in places where access to COVID vaccines is limited and infection rates are high, which means many of those Americans are desperate for the U.S. government to help them. Michael Sullivan reports.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Thailand has vaccinated less than 2% of its population, even as infection rates this month have reached new highs. And that scares many Americans living here, who are desperate to get jabbed.

PAUL RISLEY: President Biden made a very public announcement that all Americans would have access to vaccines, and overseas there are literally hundreds of thousands of Americans who do not have access to vaccines right now. And we're thinking, what are we - chopped liver?

SULLIVAN: That's Paul Risley, chairman of Democrats Abroad Thailand. He says he's happy the U.S. government took the lead in finding vaccines; he just wants Americans abroad included. And on this point, there is rare bipartisan agreement - here in Thailand, anyway.

TONY RODRIGUES: Look; I'm 100% behind our common push to get Americans vaccinated by the embassy.

SULLIVAN: Tony Rodrigues lives in Bangkok and is vice president for Republicans Overseas Asia.

RODRIGUES: I'm sure a lot of people realize it's a bit difficult sometimes for Democrats and Republicans to work together, but I thought this was a great opportunity to do something together. And we're all Americans.

SULLIVAN: Last month, they sent a letter to Secretary of State Tony Blinken asking that Thailand become a pilot program for vaccinating U.S. citizens abroad, for whom a 16-hour flight home is too daunting, too dangerous or too expensive.

Paul Risley.

RISLEY: I have two small children, 10 and 7. We would all have to go together. We would have to be tested several times. We would probably have to find a place to stay for four weeks while we are getting vaccines No. 1 and No. 2. Then on the return to Thailand, we would have to spend two weeks in mandatory hotel quarantine.

SULLIVAN: All in, he says, even if the family managed to stay with relatives, it'd cost them at least $10,000 and six to seven weeks, minimum.

Tony Rodrigues of Republicans Overseas.

RODRIGUES: I'm 60, and a lot of my friends are in their 60s and their 70s, even their 80s, and I'm very concerned about them as well. Not all of them have the wherewithal to fly home, and they have, really, very limited options.

SULLIVAN: But some have gotten very creative in finding a hack.

REUBEN L SUSHMAN: My name is Reuben L. Sushman. I'm originally from New York and worked in finance and Wall Street for about almost 20 years.

SULLIVAN: Sushman lives in Bangkok, and at the end of April, with cases there spiking, he flew to the closest U.S. soil he could find - on the Pacific island of Guam - where he had his choice of U.S. vaccines.

SUSHMAN: You can get any of them. There's plenty of supply here.

SULLIVAN: He chose Pfizer. And while he did have to quarantine on arrival in Guam, he says the U.S. government paid for it.

SUSHMAN: So for two weeks - nice hotel on the beach, full Internet, full food, three meals a day. They'll do your laundry. And it's 100% free

SULLIVAN: And it's a lot closer and a lot cheaper than flying all the way back to the States, though he'll still have to quarantine for two weeks on arrival in Thailand. But the issue is on the White House's radar. Here's Press Secretary Jen Psaki last week.


JEN PSAKI: We have not historically provided private health care for Americans living overseas, so that remains our policy. But I don't have anything to predict in terms of what may be ahead.

SULLIVAN: Americans here in Thailand hope it's change. And after a conversation last week with an embassy official here, Republicans Overseas' Tony Rodrigues was upbeat.

RODRIGUES: I don't know. I'm starting to get a little bit optimistic that something may actually happen.

SULLIVAN: For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Chiang Rai.


Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.