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West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice announced Thursday that the state will request permission from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to administer a fourth COVID-19 vaccine dose to people who are older than age 50, immunocompromised or essential workers.

The request is believed to be the first of its kind in the country, Justice said. Dr. Clay Marsh, the state’s COVID-19 czar and vice president of health sciences at West Virginia University, said the fourth dose could help alleviate further illness and infection among the most vulnerable population.

Marsh said the decision is based on data from Israel, which found that a fourth vaccine dose dramatically increased immune response against the more contagious omicron variant of COVID-19.

There is no current timeline for when the federal agency could issue its response to the request, or what that response would look like.

“We hope we can get a rapid decision from the [Food and Drug Administration] and the CDC to look at us like Israel has been [looked at] for rest of world [and] to assess the impact of a fourth vaccine in the state with the most vulnerable population in the country, who vaccinated their most vulnerable early on in the pandemic response,” Marsh said.

The request comes as the virus is spreading at an unprecedented rate, tied to the omicron variant. There were 4,947 new COVID-19 cases reported Thursday — more than any single day since the pandemic began, according to the Department of Health and Human Resources.

Eighty-two cases of the omicron variant have been confirmed, although officials say the actual count likely is higher.

The DHHR changed its definition of active cases Thursday to match adjusted guidelines issued by the CDC that shorten isolation periods from 10 days to five for those who contract the virus. Because of that adjustment, the number of active cases displayed on the DHHR’s dashboard decreased from 17,718 on Wednesday to 11,793 on Thursday.

The accelerated spread is occurring as experts learn more about the omicron variant’s effect on children, who many previously believed were largely spared the worst effects of the virus.

Nationwide, the average number of children admitted to hospitals on a daily basis has doubled over the past week, Marsh said. In Indiana, as the omicron variant continues to spread, childhood hospitalizations are four-times higher than previous levels, with 40% of those children receiving care on ventilators.

Emerging data suggest this could be because of how omicron infects people, Marsh said. Unlike previous strains, omicron seems to target upper airways, which are less developed in children, leaving them with potentially more severe infections.

“In many hospitals, they’re seeing children who are hospitalized and much sicker than they have seen in other parts of the pandemic,” Marsh said. “This is a really important finding, and people really need to wake up and make sure they understand this virus is not benign for anyone, but particularly today, not for children.”

In West Virginia, where virus trends tend to lag, such increases have not occurred. As of Thursday, eight children were hospitalized with the virus, but Marsh said that does not mean more infections — and related hospitalizations — will not occur.

About 54% of the state’s eligible population is fully vaccinated against the virus. Those rates are lowest among children, according to the DHHR.

Less than 10% of children ages 5 to 11, and 38% of those 12 to 15, are fully vaccinated. This week, a CDC panel approved the Pfizer booster for anyone 12 and older, to increase immune response.

So far, 36% of people who are fully vaccinated — 331,771 individuals — have received a booster dose.

To date, 5,392 West Virginians have died from COVID-19, with 20 of those reported Thursday, according to the DHHR.

Hospitalizations tied to COVID-19 are still on the rise, with 758 people hospitalized Thursday — 14 more than Wednesday and 112 more than Dec. 30. More than 78% of those hospitalized are unvaccinated.

James Hoyer, head of the state interagency task force, said Thursday the “significant” increases in daily hospital admissions are a concern for the state’s health care infrastructure.

“Our primary concern right now is not the availability of beds or equipment,” Hoyer said, “it’s staffing.”

Although the recent COVID-19 trends are concerning, Marsh said the worst is likely yet to come.

“We’re seeing cases go way up, but we’re not even close to the peak for what we’re going to see coming up,” Marsh said. “It’s time for us to prepare, to get vaccinated and boosted, and protect ourselves as omicron comes to West Virginia.”

Caity Coyne covers health. She can be reached at 304-348-7939 or caity.coyne Follow

@CaityCoyne on Twitter.

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