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Gov. Jim Justice, pictured on June 1, said Tuesday the state was "not out of the woods just yet" in regard to COVID-19.

With just under two weeks remaining until the proposed end of West Virginia’s face mask mandate, Gov. Jim Justice said Tuesday the state was moving full speed ahead despite “not being out of the woods just yet.”

Justice pledged last month to lift the mask order on June 20 — West Virginia Day — if 65% of eligible residents received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. On Tuesday, he indicated reaching that benchmark was no longer a prerequisite for lifting the mandate.

“We know we’re going to be close enough from the standpoint of our masks,” Justice said during his COVID-19 news briefing. “Our masks are gone on our state’s birthday and we’re happy to announce that.

“We’ve got to all be aware of just this: we’re not out of the woods just yet. We’ve still got a ways to go. If you’ll continue to help me, I promise you I’ll give every single thing, every fiber that I have in my body to try to help and do anything that I can for all of us.”

As of Tuesday morning, 59.9% of West Virginians age 12 and older had received at least one dose of the vaccine. The state is also nearing Justice’s goal of having at least 85% of residents age 65 and older receive at least one vaccine dose. As of Tuesday, that number was 84.6%.

Justice again encouraged residents who may be vaccine hesitant or anti-vaccine to get inoculated, leaning on continued help from Babydog, his beloved English bulldog and the face of the state’s vaccination campaign.

“If you’re not going to do it for me, if you’re not going to do it for your family, if you’re not going to do it for yourself, do it for Babydog,” Justice said. “Do it for that little rascal — not little, but — that little rascal who looks like a brown watermelon that loves everybody.”

According to the Department of Health and Human Resources’ COVID-19 dashboard, the state still has more than 3,000 active coronavirus cases and more than 2,800 residents have died from complications related to the virus.

Also Tuesday, Dr. Clay Marsh, vice president of health sciences at West Virginia University and the state’s coronavirus czar, said the state was closely following the efficacy of vaccines to determine when or if booster shots would be necessary.

Marsh said observations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate the vaccines are working well after at least at six months.

“We are also very focused, very closely watching what’s happening around the rest of the country, around the rest of the world and also what’s happening in West Virginia,” he said.

Marsh added officials are watching carefully to see if any “breakthrough” cases arise. Those are instances in which a person is diagnosed with the coronavirus despite having received their full vaccination and making it through the subsequent two-week period.

“That might be the very earliest insight that we may get that either the vaccines are starting to reduce in their effectiveness in at least a few people,” Marsh said, “because we presume that’s going to be different for different people ... but also that may be an insight that we have a new variant that’s causing problems.”

Reach Jared Serre at jserre@hdmediallc.com or on Twitter at @JaredSerre.

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