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As more fully vaccinated people become hospitalized in West Virginia because of COVID-19, Gov. Jim Justice and state health officials touted the federal government’s approval of Pfizer booster shots for at-risk people handed down this week.

The booster shots are recommended for older and at-risk people ages 18 and up who received the two-dose Pfizer vaccine at least six months ago. The indicators listed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are “broad,” said Dr. Clay Marsh, West Virginia’s coronavirus czar.

“For the most part, if you want a booster shot and are 18 and older, you can now get your booster shot,” Justice said.

Booster doses are different from the additional doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines that were approved in August. The additional doses are for people who are immunocompromised, and are available at least four weeks after someone receives their initial two doses.

Federal guidance recommends booster shots for people who are 65 and older in long-term care facilities, and for those 50 and older with underlying medical conditions. People age 18 and older who might be at risk or who are front-line workers also are urged to get the shots.

“Without question in any way, go get the booster shot, get the booster shot now,” Justice said.

As of Friday, there were 16,223 active COVID-19 cases in West Virginia, according to the Department of Health and Human Resources, and 3,523 COVID-19 deaths. Nearly 51% of West Virginians over age 12 are fully vaccinated. Vaccination rates are lowest among 12- to 15-year-olds and 26- to 30-year-olds, where 37% and 43% of people, respectively, are vaccinated.

Hospitalizations are still on the rise, with 1,008 people hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Friday, according to the DHHR. Of those patients, 289 are in intensive care, with 187 on ventilators.

Nearly 20% of hospitalized patients are fully vaccinated. Marsh said this shows that more serious breakthrough cases are becoming more common, although still comparatively rare.

The booster shot, he said, will help more people stay protected by upping their immune response, which data from Pfizer show begins to wane about every six months.

Guidance from the CDC and Food and Drug Administration for Moderna and Johnson & Johnson booster shots is still under review. For now, James Hoyer, with the state COVID-19 response task force, said there are enough Pfizer doses in stock to distribute any requested booster shots.

Hoyer said teams are figuring out distribution logistics for nursing homes, where many residents received Moderna doses early in the vaccine distribution process. He said staff members are going through resident lists to see who is eligible for boosters and when they will need them.

“It is a lot of logistics work, on behalf of the nursing homes and our teams, to make sure we get the right number of doses to the right places,” Hoyer said.

Justice said he does not expect vaccine hesitancy to factor into booster distribution, as people receiving boosters have already made the choice to be fully vaccinated.

“West Virginia could have been a bloodbath beyond belief, when you think of all the sickness we have,” Justice said. “It could have been a bloodbath, but I’m really proud of [vaccinated residents], and I hope to goodness that more and more will get vaccinated.”

Caity Coyne covers health. She can be reached at 304-348-7939 or Follow @CaityCoyne on Twitter.

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