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Ahead of Southern Decadence, 6K doses of monkeypox vaccine coming to New Orleans

An image of the Monkeypox virus from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.
Courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
An image of the Monkeypox virus from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.

The federal government will send 6,000 doses of the monkeypox vaccine to New Orleans for distribution during this weekend’s Decadence Festival in an effort to boost immunizations in the LGBTQ population.

The allocation represents the largest influx of vaccines in the state since the outbreak began. It also comes as federal, state and local public health officials explore new ways to curb the spread of the virus that, up to this point, has been most common among men who have sex with men.

White House officials have targeted Southern Decadence in New Orleans, Black Pride in Atlanta and Pridefest in Oakland for a trial run at massive immunization and education campaigns that may be used in other LGBTQ events.

"There's no doubt we will learn lessons over the weekend that we can then share with other folks around the country and help them to do an even better job of preparing for similar events," Gov. John Bel Edwards said on a press call with White House officials.

The return of the annual festival, which hasn’t been held since 2019 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and Hurricane Ida, could have as many as 300,000 attendees.

Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, deputy coordinator of the White House National Monkeypox Response, said the effort came at the request of community leaders who challenged the federal government to meet people at higher risk of contracting the virus where they are.

“It was a great opportunity to get folks ready for the event in terms of getting vaccines on the ground early, but also a great opportunity to reach people who won’t go to a clinic for a vaccine effort, but will feel comfortable in, frankly, a less stigmatizing space,” Daskalakis said.

Daskalakis emphasized that people who receive vaccinations this weekend should still take other precautions to avoid contracting or spreading monkeypox. The vaccine, which is administered in two doses 28 days apart, only reaches full efficacy two weeks after the second dose.

“That first shot doesn’t mean you’re protected for the event,” Daskalakis said. “That shot’s not for today. It’s for four weeks from now, plus two weeks, when you get maximum protection.”

Monkeypox is not a sexually transmitted disease, but does spread through close skin-to-skin contact with the rash monkeypox causes, and through bodily fluids, respiratory secretions and touching clothing or linens used by someone with monkeypox.

Along with vaccines, the federal government is sending a mobile testing unit, and the state will conduct wastewater monitoring in the French Quarter and nearby neighborhoods to determine the virus’ prevalence in the community.

Federal health officials recently altered their guidance to allow the vaccine to be administered under the skin, enabling health workers to stretch limited vaccine supplies. The intradermal method allows for four times as many doses as the intramuscular method previously used.

The change allowed for a much wider distribution of a vaccine that has been hard to access in Louisiana and across the country.

Earlier this month, the state requested additional vaccine doses from the federal government in anticipation of the Decadence festival. The city of New Orleans has held several vaccine events ahead of the event. To date, the state has received 8,862 vials of the monkeypox vaccine, not including the allocation announced Tuesday.

As of Tuesday, the Louisiana Department of Health has recorded 181 cases of monkeypox in the state, with the vast majority occurring in the greater New Orleans region.

The outbreak has disproportionately affected Black Louisianans, who account for 60% of the cases reported in the state compared to the 27% among white individuals. Nearly 90% of cases have been among men.

White House officials hope the vaccination and education efforts at Southern Decadence can be a model that can be scaled-down and brought to smaller LGBTQ events across the country.

“I think that our next chapter here is about making sure that we build in systems that really improve equity and make sure vaccines are not only getting in arms, but in the arms of people who really need it,” Daskalakis said.

Paul Braun was WRKF's Capitol Access reporter, from 2019 through 2023.