Shortly after Cherice Harrison-Nelson, otherwise known as Queen Reesie, donned her Mardi Gras feathers and crown in 2020, she began to see many people in her community contract COVID-19.
Harrison-Nelson is the co-founder of the Mardi Gras Indians Hall of Fame and Maroon Queen of the Guardians of the Flame Mardi Gras Indians. The seamstress who helps sew her Mari Gras costume and elements of her crown was hospitalized for three months and placed on a ventilator.
So when the Krewe of Red Beans reached out to her to help her get access to a COVID-19 vaccine, she decided not to take any chances.
“I was really happy to get to be able to get vaccinated. I'm a very ample sized woman. And I am an asthmatic. I'm over 60 and a cancer survivor,” Harrison-Nelson said. “So, to me, it was a big deal.”
Harrison-Nelson received COVID-19 vaccines through the new Culture > COVID program, which hires out-of-work local musicians to drive New Orleans’ elder culture bearers to Crescent Care Health’s vaccination clinic to get COVID-19 vaccines that might otherwise be wasted.
The program was created by the Krewe of Red Beans, a walking Mardi Gras krewe led by Devin De Wulf, a former teacher and stay-at-home dad.
“If we want to build a really strong city with a really amazing culture, which is our greatest asset, we have to work to make that treasure truly, truly valued and supported,” De Wulf said. “And we’re saying to people like Miss Cherice, we honor you. We love you for the culture that you’re creating.”
Saxophonist Nick Ellman drove Harrison-Nelson to her vaccination appointment. The conversation on the drive to the clinic with Harrison-Nelson inevitably went to safety concerns. Ellman, who undergoes regular COVID-19 testing in order to be a part of the Red Beans fleet, wore two masks and was equipped with sanitizer. Harrison-Nelson talked about all the sanitizing wipes she now keeps on hand.
A full-time musician, Ellman has been out of work since March 2020, when the pandemic shuttered bars and clubs and canceled gigs. He said COVID-19 has devastated the livelihoods of local musicians.
“There’s no jobs as far as music is concerned,” Ellman said.
He said he understands that safety is “more important than music right now,” and he’s grateful that the Krewe of Red Beans has called on him to shuttle elderly cultural leaders who may have limited access to transportation and healthcare to receive vaccines.
The vaccine that Harrison-Nelson received was one of the “angel’ doses sometimes found in vials of the Pfizer vaccine. Crescent Care generally receives Moderna vaccines, but was sent extra doses of the Pfizer drug this week. Both vaccines require cold storage, and once doses are thawed, they must be used within a specific timeframe.
Through the Culture > COVID program, Crescent Care alerts Krewe of Red Beans when they have exhausted all options to get excess defrosted vaccine doses to their patients in the Phase 1B Tier 1 priority groups. That includes people age 70 or older, dialysis providers and patients, health clinic providers and staff and faculty, staff, students and residents of allied health schools.
“We’re finding [that] these extra doses are very unpredictable. We've had days where we've had zero [and] we've had days where we've had 10,” Dr. Isolde Butler, physician site director for the clinic’s location on Elysian Fields, said. “It's really kind of hard to predict how many we're going to have, which, of course, makes any sort of planning challenging.”
On the days when there are extra doses, Butler said, there’s a push to call the clinic’s list of Tier 1B patients who don’t already have vaccination appointments. If those people can’t get to the clinic that day, then New Orleans’ older culture bearers who might not quite fit into the parameters of Phase 1B Tier 1, like Harrison-Nelson, can be next in line.
“This is a person who surely needs the vaccine, is almost certainly going to be in the next wave to open up,” Butler said. “And I think, you know, at that point, we don't want any vaccine to go to waste. And I think that's our number one driving factor.”
De Wulf said his krewe is driven to create job opportunities for out-of-work musicians and to keep the city’s culture bearers safe from contracting COVID-19. He wanted Harrison-Nelson to be vaccinated because she’s “irreplaceable” to the city of New Orleans.
“That is how we have to think about every single musician, every single Baby Doll, every single Back Masking Indian, every single second line. They're irreplaceable,” De Wulf said.
Through crowdfunding, the krewe pays Ellman and other out-of-work musicians $100 — about what they would make for a gig — for each trip they make. It’s an extension of the group’s Feed the Second Line program, started in May, that hires local musicians to deliver boxes of local produce from Crescent City Farmers Market and prepared meals from local restaurants to the city’s elderly culture bearers.
On the drive home, Ellman tells Harrison-Nelson about his band Naughty Professor and that he loves listening to her brother, jazz saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr. She talks about her father, folklorist Donald Harrison Sr., the Guardians of the Flame’s first Big Chief. They share their stories of cultural exchanges abroad — Ellman on a music engagement in China, Harrison-Nelson on a Fulbright scholarship in Ghana and Senegal.
He’ll be back in three weeks to take her to the clinic for her second shot.