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LGBTQ+ festival Southern Decadence will test monkeypox precautions in New Orleans


Southern Decadence is sometimes known as Gay Mardi Gras - one of the largest LGBTQ events in the country, drawing in past years massive crowds, mostly men, to New Orleans for Labor Day weekend. But this year, monkeypox casts a shadow over Southern Decadence. We're joined now by the director of the New Orleans Health Department, Dr. Jennifer Avegno.

Thanks so much for being with us.

JENNIFER AVEGNO: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: A big outdoor concert has been canceled because of concerns about having that many people in close quarters. Is that going to be enough? What's your thought?

AVEGNO: Well, New Orleans is no stranger to understanding the effects of a high-risk event during the early days of a pandemic. We only have to look to Mardi Gras 2020 to understand what happened in the aftermath. And so Southern Decadence brings generally about 250,000 individuals, mainly to the French Quarter, which has very narrow streets. And so it has a lot of close contact. So in our conversations with the venues, they're all really taking stock of what they feel is safe for them, safe for their staff, safe for our community and safe for folks who might be there. And they're making their decisions based on that - you know, understanding we have more tools to fight monkeypox, but that still might not be enough for organizers to want to have the safe event that they planned.

SIMON: So keep your distance.

AVEGNO: Keep your distance. Wear long sleeves. Wear long pants. If you've been to New Orleans in August and September, you know, that's kind of an impossibility. It's pretty hot here.

SIMON: Is Southern Decadence an opportunity to talk to many people who are considered to be in what you'd have to call the at-risk population.

AVEGNO: Right now we do know that the majority of cases, both in Louisiana and around the country, are primarily in men who have sex with men and especially with multiple sexual partners. And that is a very large demographic of who's going to be at Decadence. So we started months ago, as did other cities with similar events, starting communication, starting outreach, starting education. You know, we really do have a narrowing opportunity to control the epidemic in this high-risk population because we know, like many other epidemics, if we don't control it in this population, then it is soon going to become widespread in the entire community. And I think that the high-risk population now understands that, and they certainly want to play their part in protecting themselves so that this doesn't become any bigger than it needs to be.

SIMON: Is the effectiveness of vaccines limited by the fact that you have so many tourists who don't have access to the vaccines you have there?

AVEGNO: Right. Well, quite frankly, across the country, no one has enough access to vaccine. It's been a much slower, practical rollout of vaccine distribution than we would have liked here in the U.S., regardless of where you're talking about. And so while our state health department is working with others to encourage folks who might be traveling here to get vaccinated before they come, practically speaking - you know, this is a two-dose vaccine. We know the highest protection is when you are two weeks after that second dose. But we know that not enough people are going to have had that second dose, let alone a first dose, by the time they come here.

So our focus is really on marshaling and fiercely advocating to our federal partners to get as many vaccines on the ground right now so we can protect not only our high-risk community, the one that's been talked about, but our hospitality staff who are going to be serving and caring for these guests coming from all over the place with varying levels of protection, who may very well be at risk themselves just because of how close the nature of these events are. So, you know, we're encouraging - if you're coming to Decadence, we'd love for you to be vaccinated. We would love for you to figure out how you're going to keep yourself safe. But we really want to make sure that we have a baseline very high level of protection when you do come.

SIMON: I don't want to be obscure. Intimate contact is just not a good idea?

AVEGNO: Well, it certainly raises your risk. And that is, again, skin to skin, you know, and particularly skin to skin for someone who is showing lesions, right? That's the way it's primarily spread. We do know that there's likely some degree of transmission between, you know, other intimate contact, whether it's sexual contact, whether it's kissing or even some respiratory contact. But it's hard to have intimate contact without skin to skin, and so repeated exposures are going to elevate your risk.

SIMON: Dr. Jennifer Avegno is director of the New Orleans Health Department.

Doctor, thanks so much for being with us.

AVEGNO: Thank you, Scott.


Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.