New Orleans is the highest vaccinated city, but COVID-19 and subsequent variants still hit NOLA hard. Photo credit: Morgan Petroski

Let the variants roll. Potential COVID-19 spike a concern for New Orleans residents as Mardi Gras nears

Crime may not be NOLA’s main problem as fears remain with the surge of Omicron variant infections.

The revelry must go on for the City of New Orleans as its cherished Mardi Gras celebrations are around the corner. “We know that Mardi Gras and our carnival season is good for our soul,” declared Mayor Latoya Cantrell at the carnival season kickoff right after the new year.

But, some disagree with the push for celebrations as variants continue to emerge in a city already dealing with growing economic and health concerns, along with safety, as well as environmental issues. “The city of New Orleans has [a] baseline higher chronic comorbid condition or underlying health conditions than a lot of other places,” pediatric allergy and immunology professor Akilah Jefferson Shah told local news.  

With 82 percent of adults either fully or partially having received COVID-19 vaccinations, New Orleans is the most vaccinated city in the U.S. Nevertheless, the area has dealt with a series of economic and public safety woes that have exacerbated residents’ overall wellness with COVID-19. 

Shah, who wants officials to “rethink” open Mardi Gras celebrations furthered, “Then the city of New Orleans has all the social things too. We have higher levels of poverty. We have high levels of people working the types of jobs where they are at risk. So you kind of add those things together, it puts a lot of people at very high risk.”

| Read: Cultural imprint of New Orleans Mardi Gras

Added to concern are the rising numbers of infections in schools. “Health care systems and schools — the bedrock of any thriving community — are once again stretched to the brink by this pandemic, and right now, everyone in our community feels its impact,” said Jennifer Avegno, Director of the New Orleans Health Department. The school system reports over 6,700 students have tested positive for COVID since in-person classes started in early August 2021. Thousands have also been quarantined in a wave of reported illnesses.

Yet and still, Mayor Cantrell and others are moving forward. The mayor commented, “While we will have our Mardi Gras 2022, we will always do what is best . . . for our bodies as well.” 

To deal with reported increases, Mayor Cantrell put a mask mandate and proof of vaccine to enter indoor establishments in January. Although modified in early February, the compulsory order still exists. 

While Mayor Cantrell’s public commitment to “keep [New Orleanian] people safe,” the festivities also point to a fiscal bottom line. Last year, the city canceled Mardi Gras, costing an estimated $1 billion in revenue. Already cash-strapped and dealing with growing infrastructure issues worsened with a succession of major storms, the popular festival would be devastating to the City’s bottom line.

The fattest Tuesday

New Orleans, and its surrounding cities and towns, collectively host one of the largest Fat Tuesday festivals in the world, after Rio De Janeiro and Trinidad & Tobago’s carnivals. Specifically in the Crescent City, around 1.4 million visitors flood the French Quarters and subsequent wards to celebrate for several days in both outdoor and indoor activities.

The two most noted fetes are the evening balls and the parades. In particular, the parades see celebrants in the hundreds of thousands crammed into the area’s mid-sized streets. At the moment, the holiday makes a perfect storm for a super spreader event as experienced at the city’s 2020 Mardi Gras. 

After the carnival, a multi-state spike occurred in Louisiana and neighboring states in February and March of 2020. The science community notes that the post-Mardi Gras COVID outbreak was one of the worst in the U.S.

“Our findings show how a single, large-scale social event can play a major role in kick-starting a viral epidemic when no restrictions are in place,” explained postdoctoral researcher Mark Zeller, PhD. Zeller works in the laboratory of Scripps Research Immunology and Microbiology professor Kristian Andersen, PhD, in California. Dr. Andersen’s team study said it is highly likely that infection came from a Texan visiting the area during the festivities.

Regardless, officials assure they have effective safety measures in place—masking, testing and vaccinations. “As we go about our daily lives and anticipate welcoming large crowds to the City in the coming weeks, we must implement all of these measures to remain safe and healthy,” mentioned Dr. Avegno. 

Let the good times roll, perhaps.

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