Biden administration declares monkeypox a public health emergency

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By Julie O’Donoghue | NEW ORLEANS – Louisiana is heading towards one of the largest gatherings of gay and bisexual men in the country next month without nearly enough monkeypox vaccine to meet demand – and with a shortage of vaccines to nationwide during a growing outbreak of the virus.

Anyone, regardless of gender or sexual history, can get monkeypox, health officials have pointed out, but an overwhelming number of cases in the United States and Europe so far have been in men with sex with men. If the outbreak in LGBTQ+ goes unchecked, health experts expect the virus to spread further into the general population.

Yet so far, the federal government has resisted calls from Louisiana health officials to provide the state with more vaccines ahead of one of the major events on the national gay social calendar.

Southern Decadence, billed as the largest LGBTQ+ festival held annually in the Deep South, is slated for Labor Day weekend (September 1-5) in New Orleans. It typically attracts 100,000 to 300,000 attendees and is a major economic boon to the city in a season when tourism is otherwise sluggish.

People come from across the country and around the world to attend, and anticipation is especially high this year, as the festival was canceled in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-19 concerns.

Still, state and local health officials say Louisiana’s meager vaccine supply will leave the state vulnerable to a large outbreak of monkeypox following such a massive event. Southern Decadence could also help spread the virus to other parts of the country if visitors become infected in New Orleans and bring monkeypox back to their hometown, they said.

“It will be a superspreader event with no additional doses of vaccine in advance to get as many people as possible [vaccinated]said Jennifer Avegno, New Orleans health director and emergency physician, in an interview this week.

Ideally, Louisiana and New Orleans would launch a massive vaccination campaign to inoculate as many people as possible – especially gay and bisexual men – before Southern Decadence.

But the federal government only agreed to give the state 9,200 doses of monkeypox vaccine in total. Some of those doses may not arrive until mid-September, after Southern Decadence has already taken place, state officials said last week.

The Louisiana Department of Health pleaded with the federal government to give the state an additional 15,000 doses “outside of the normal state allocation” ahead of Southern Decadence to help prepare for the event, but the request has not been granted so far. Officials from the US Centers for Disease Control are more likely to provide technical assistance – expertise in communication, education, epidemiology and behavioral science – before the event.

“We’ve been advocating for weeks and weeks at the highest levels of the federal government to put this on their radar — because it wasn’t on their radar,” Avegno said of Southern Decadence. “We need to vaccinate a lot of people and we need supplies.”

In the absence of more vaccine doses, Avegno said public health officials are working with Southern Decadence organizers and bars that cater to the LGBTQ+ community to educate them about how the virus is carrying itself. spread. Louisiana and New Orleans are totally dependent on the federal government to supply the drug.

Monkeypox is thought to be spread easily through prolonged skin-to-skin contact, although it can also be spread by sharing personal items like towels and sheets. The virus can produce flu-like symptoms and a painful rash, which is subtle at first but later turns into oozing scabs. A person with monkeypox can be contagious and sick for a month.

The disease is rarely fatal, but can leave scars. People with monkeypox have trouble going to the bathroom and describe it as one of the most uncomfortable experiences of their lives. They may have trouble sleeping because the pain is so intense.

Still, the monkeypox vaccine has been very hard to find in Louisiana, even for people who have spent days trying to find it. The state’s largest healthcare provider that caters to the LGBTQ+ community, CrescentCare in New Orleans, ran out of doses for several days last week.

“Southern Decadence is alarming – to put it lightly,” said clinic spokesman Joe Hui.

Louisiana may have an uphill battle when it comes to advocating for more vaccine doses. It has a lower infection rate – about 1 in about 80,400 residents has monkeypox – than the country as a whole, where 1 in 49,800 residents have tested positive. The state also competes with places like California and New York, which experience larger outbreaks of monkeypox and have larger populations of gay and bisexual men.

Louisiana had just 58 confirmed cases of monkeypox, including 42 in New Orleans or its surrounding parishes, as of Wednesday evening. By comparison, New York had 1,666 and California had 826. In the South, Texas and Florida both had more than 500 cases.

But organizers of Southern Decadence events said they believe other communities that hold major events for gay and bi men receive more resources than New Orleans up front.

Mark Louque, who splits his time between New Orleans and Provincetown, Mass., said Provincetown residents had much more access to the vaccine ahead of Bear Week, another popular festival for gay people, in early July.

“All of these people were able to get vaccinated two weeks before bear week,” he said.

Louque hosts a dance party at the Ace Hotel during Southern Decadence which typically draws 1,200 to 1,500 people.

In light of the monkey pox, he reduced the capacity to 100 people for the event, so dancers could spread out more and not have to touch each other if they didn’t want to. It has also offered refunds to any guest who has already purchased a ticket if they feel unsafe. Louque also plans to send emails to people who have registered for the party, educating them about the risks associated with monkeypox.

“Keeping these nightlife spaces safe for people is part of my job,” he said. “And maybe we have to dance with our shirts on this year? I don’t know.”

Ross Ransom, who hosts two parties during Southern Decadence, said it’s hard to know what to expect. Its events could attract a few hundred people, but the monkeypox outbreak could also reduce attendance. Ransom tries to share resources on where to get the vaccine in Louisiana and how to identify monkeypox through social media accounts.

Ransom, who owns a home in New Orleans but lives part-time in California, said he had already been vaccinated. He wishes there could be a vaccination site in the French Quarter during the Southern Decadence to reach more people.

“The vaccine appears to be disproportionately unavailable in the South,” he said.

A large outbreak of monkeypox could have a potentially devastating impact on Louisiana, which relies heavily on tourism and heads into football season, when tens of thousands of people crowd into LSU’s Tiger Stadium and the Superdome in New Orleans for games.

New Orleans City Councilman JP Morrell said he hopes to see a more robust education campaign on monkeypox from Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration heading into Southern Decadence.

“[The city] didn’t take it as seriously as COVID because the death incidents are not as high as COVID,” Morrell said. “But you don’t want school attendance to collapse and the economy to collapse because people are home for a month bedridden with sores.”

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Julie O’Donoghue is a senior reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator and producer of the Louisiana Illuminator podcast. She has received awards from the Virginia Press Association and the Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press. Julie covered government and state politics for NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune for six years.

She has also covered government and politics in Missouri, Virginia and Washington DC Julie is a proud DC native and Washington Capitals hockey fan. She and her partner, Jed, live in Baton Rouge. She has two stepchildren, Quinn and Steven.

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The preceding article was previously published by the Louisiana Illuminator and is republished with permission.

Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a grant-supported network of news outlets and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Louisiana Illuminator maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jarvis DeBerry with any questions: [email protected]. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.

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