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Liona Boyd in Palm Beach, Fla., Dec. 15, 2020.

Handout

Canadians who spend the winter in Florida could receive COVID-19 immunizations sooner down south than they would at home after Governor Ron DeSantis said the state would prioritize older people over younger essential workers.

At a news conference held in the retirement community of the Villages, Fla., on Tuesday, Mr. DeSantis bristled at a recommendation by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that, after health care workers and long-term care staff and residents, vaccines should be made available to essential workers and people 75 and older.

“If you’re a 22-year-old working in food services – say, a supermarket – you would have preference over a 74-year-old grandmother. I don’t think that is the direction we want to go,” Mr. DeSantis said.

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“We are not going to put young, healthy workers ahead of our elderly, vulnerable population.”

There are 3.12 million people in Florida over the age of 70, and the Governor said the state will “probably have enough vaccine over the next six weeks” to immunize those in the group who want it.

When asked if full-time residents will have priority over seasonal residents, Mr. DeSantis said the state has “not necessarily done that. We’ll see.” Samantha Bequer, press secretary for the Florida Division of Emergency Management, said all Floridians and visitors will be eligible for the vaccine.

The Canadian Snowbird Association estimates that half a million Canadians spend the winter in the Sunshine State every year. While this year’s COVID-19 restrictions and travel advisories have greatly slashed the number of snowbirds heading south, many Canadians are still choosing to bunker down in Florida where they can at least enjoy a warmer climate.

Martin Firestone, president of Travel Secure Inc., a travel insurance brokerage in Ontario, said his regular clientele dipped to “nothing” over the spring and summer but has since climbed back up to about 30 per cent of the norm as COVID-19 medical insurance became available and winter approached.

Mr. Firestone said a few clients have mused about the possibility of being immunized in Florida before they would be eligible in Ontario.

“This is an interesting twist, Ontario snowbirds going down to Florida to get their vaccine,” he said. “That, to me, is just off the wall.”

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Vaccination targets for seniors in Canada vary slightly by province. In British Columbia, for example, those 80 and older are included in the first priority group, alongside health care workers, high-risk people living in group settings and Indigenous people in rural and remote communities. Older people younger than 80 are expected to receive immunizations as part of the second priority group, likely in the spring, prioritized in descending five-year age groups.

Alberta, meanwhile, is aiming to immunize seniors 75 and older – and First Nations, Métis and people 65 and older living in a First Nations community or Métis settlement – in February. No timeline has been given for seniors under 75 yet, but it is expected to be during the second phase, between April and September.

Ontario will be rolling out its vaccine in three phases, prioritizing the most vulnerable first, but has not yet released targets for seniors living in the community.

Liona Boyd, the classical guitarist, divides her time between Toronto and Palm Beach, Fla. She took a private jet to Florida with some friends this month, opting to spend winter in her Palm Beach house over her Toronto condo. There, she says, songwriting and the warm weather have helped combat the loneliness of being a single woman in self-isolation.

Ms. Boyd, 71, said she knows two people who have died from COVID-19 and is “very worried” about the virus. She will be first in line to be immunized, wherever it is available, she said.

“I redid my will before I left,” she said. “It’s terrifying. I could be dead. But I’m optimistic that science will rescue us from this.”

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Ms. Boyd said it would be “amazing” if people over 70 in Florida could indeed be immunized within the next six weeks, “however, I’ll believe it when I feel a needle in my arm.”

Perry and Rose Cohen, of Toronto, have spent every winter in a retirement community north of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for 17 years. The two, both in their early 70s, returned this year, taking some additional precautions to avoid others in a neighbourhood that Mr. Cohen estimates already has around 40-per-cent fewer residents than usual years.

He said the couple was troubled by how busy some of the area beaches and restaurants are, but the two are staying away from the bustle, opting to enjoy the quiet greenery of their community.

Mr. Cohen said the two are open to being immunized while there, if possible.

“If we can get the vaccine in Florida before we go home in April, we would do it, providing we have enough time to get the second shot three weeks following the first,” he said.

Mr. Firestone at Travel Secure does not recommend travelling for the vaccine and cautions prospective snowbirds that even if they do have COVID-19 insurance and follow all safety precautions, an unrelated injury could leave them navigating an overwhelmed health care system in the U.S.

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“I would be very wary of recommending travel at this point for fear that you could get bounced around from one hospital to the next until you finally get looked after,” he said. “And then will that care be immediate? Will you be covered? These are the scariest things.”

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