COVID-19 Vaccination in Costa Rica: Full Steam Ahead
Is Costa Rica a safe place to visit amid an ongoing COVID-19 pandemic? The short answer is yes, for the most part, and that’s measurable in part by the vigorous campaign toward nearly universal COVID-19 vaccination in Costa Rica.
Costa Rica was the second country in Latin America, after Mexico, to administer the COVID-19 vaccine to its population. On Dec. 23, the government received the first shipment of 9,750 coronavirus vaccines from pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and BioNTech. A group of elderly people received the first doses the following day, on the morning of Christmas Eve.
As of June 14, the Social Security System (CCSS, commonly known as the Caja) had administered 2.15 million COVID-19 vaccines in Costa Rica. Of these, 1.4 million people had received only one dose and nearly 741,000 had already received the required two doses. Those figures mean that just over a third of the country’s population has already received at least one dose.
President Carlos Alvarado said in mid-May that the goal is to vaccinate at least 4.5 million people by the end of the year. That is about 88% of the just over 5 million inhabitants of Costa Rica.
The government had initially planned to vaccinate only those over 18 years old. On June 1, the Health Ministry confirmed that the National Vaccination Commission approved the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine also for adolescents 12 and older.
In addition to the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, Costa Rica is also administering the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca.
Vaccination priority groups
The Caja organized its vaccination program by grouping the population into five priority groups, taking into consideration age, risk factors and general health conditions.
Group 1 includes some 110,000 people (3.1% of the total) made up of elderly people from nursing homes as well as all employees from these facilities. It also includes doctors, nurses and other employees from public hospitals, as well as front-line workers from the Health Ministry, private hospitals, the National Emergency Commission, Firefighters, Red Cross and the National Police.
Group 2 comprises some 850,000 people (24.3% of the total), including those aged 58 and older, regardless of their health condition.
Group 3, of just over 1.5 million people (44.7% of the total), includes people between 18 and 57, with risk factors such as hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, chronic respiratory or kidney disease, class III and morbid obesity, cancer, HIV, Down syndrome, lupus, sickle-cell disease, muscular dystrophy, nonspecific chronic ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, vasculitis, hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism.
Group 4, of about 150,000 people (4.3% of the total), is made up of teachers and employees of the Public Education Ministry, as well as those of the private educational sector, employees and inmates of the correctional system, employees of Child Welfare Office shelters, the 911 service, the Water and Sewers Institute and trash collectors.
Group 5, of some 825,000 people (23.6%), is made up of people aged 12 to 57 with no risk factors described in the previous groups and who work in contact with others. These are people whose jobs have a direct impact on the production sector, including agriculture, construction, restaurants, domestic workers and others. Also, this group includes health care and technical students doing their internships at CCSS hospitals and everyone 12 years and older who doesn’t qualify for any of the other four groups.
Who can get the COVID-19 vaccination in Costa Rica?
The government said recently that vaccination campaigns are now focused on people in groups 3 and 4, but only in hospitals and other vaccination sites that have already completed at least 80% of people from Groups 1 and 2.
However, we were told at a recent vaccination campaign at Reserva Conchal that anyone 30 or older will be vaccinated — not counting foreigners who don’t meet one of the exceptions. Also, the Health Ministry told us that anyone who is 12 or older may be eligible, so you might want to bring your teenagers. Don’t be surprised by the changing rules, as they seem to be in a state of constant flux.
Health officials say they maintain an open attitude toward vaccinating people without any risk factor, with the aim of not wasting vaccines that might have to be discarded if not used once they have been removed from their required storage temperature (35°F to 46°F).
Health Minister Daniel Salas said at a press conference on June 8 that when vaccines are going to be discarded because people missed their vaccination appointments, “health workers are allowed to apply them to other people, including those from Group 5, so that those doses are not lost.”
Group 1 is now completed, with more than 100% of the people initially projected for that group now vaccinated, Salas added.
The Caja reported recently that 5,799 doses have been applied to people without risk factors or from Group 5, as a result of people scheduled to be vaccinated who did not show up.
Salas also said that Costa Rican nationals without Caja insurance will also be vaccinated.
Those who do not currently have insurance, but have attended a Caja hospital at some point, can request the vaccine, because they already have a clinical medical history, even if they were treated in the emergency room, Salas said.
Can foreigners get a COVID-19 vaccine in Costa Rica?
If you’re a foreigner living in Costa Rica who wants to get a COVID-19 vaccination, there’s good news and bad news.
With the exceptions noted below, Costa Rica does NOT vaccinate foreigners. Here are four exceptions:
- Foreign-born residents who have obtained legal Costa Rican residency and can prove it with a cédula ID card, a DIMEX ID document issued to foreigners, or a Costa Rican passport can get vaccinated if they fall into the priority groups currently eligible.
- Foreigners who have submitted all the documents needed to obtain legal residency and whose application is currently “en trámite,” meaning in process, are also eligible to receive a vaccine.
- Foreigners who are registered with the Caja (CCSS) health-care system, either through an employer or through voluntary insurance payments, can also get a vaccine.
- People with active refugee requests or approved refugee status are also eligible.
The United States recently announced that Costa Rica will be among the Latin American and Caribbean countries to which the U.S. will be donating some 6 million vaccines. And yet if you’re an American living in Costa Rica without the right residency status, you’re not likely to get one.
Big turnout at vaccination campaigns
If you’ve been in the greater Flamingo area recently, you may have seen a huge number of cars parked on the shoulders near Reserva Conchal, with maybe 100 people standing in line along the road on a rainy day. Was this a U2 concert or what?
No, it was a vaccination campaign. And while the line moved very slowly under the unforgiving pitter-patter of rain, even those without umbrellas stayed in line.
Though there are anti-vaxxers in this country, as in any other, it was a testament to how most people understand the value of being vaccinated. It’s not necessarily quick and easy, but these folks considered it worth the wait.
The government is committed to providing free vaccines to almost everyone who wants one. And that can only bode well for the long-term health and safety of Costa Rica.