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Western Ky. health department leaders detail COVID-19 boosters and who needs them

Mary Meehan
Ohio Valley Resource

Western Kentucky health department leaders are encouraging older Kentuckians and those with medical conditions creating weaker immune systems to receive a second COVID-19 booster vaccine following federal officials in late March authorizing the extra booster.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration in late March approved a second booster dose of the Pfizer vaccine for people 50 years old or older and for immunocompromised people 12 years or older. The FDA also authorized a second booster dose of the Moderna vaccine for immunocompromised individuals 18 years old or older.

“The agency will continue to evaluate data and information as it becomes available when considering the potential use of a second booster dose in other age groups,” the FDA release stated.

Graves County Health Department Director Riley Willett said she believes most people are aware elderly and immunocompromised individuals are more vulnerable to the virus, with the booster shots adding more protection. She said there’s been some interest in the extra boosters but not a “huge uptake.”

“They need a little bit more protection, and it's kind of been like that since the beginning,” Willett said. “We just need to be a little bit more careful with those groups of people.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention switched to a new way to measure community spread at the county level in February, which faced criticism from some public health experts for not conveying a wholly accurate picture of risk, especially the risk of immunocompromised individuals. Under this new federal metric, almost every county in Kentucky is now classified as “low” for COVID-19 spread.

State COVID-19 data shows the daily case incidence rates for COVID-19 are either “low” or “moderate” in western Kentucky counties, part of a continual decline in COVID-19 spread the past several weeks. Willett said she trusts the state data that shows COVID-19 transmission is low because she’s also seen a decrease in calls and walk-ins to her department related to COVID-19, along with lower local hospitalization numbers.

But she also said the COVID-19 data may be less precise because more people are taking at-home COVID-19 tests that aren’t reported to the state. Local health departments have also changed the situations in which cases are reported after their staffs were overwhelmed by the last winter’s case surge fueled by the rapid spread of the omicron variant.

She said her department is aware of one active case of COVID-19 in Graves County. But new variants, including the BA.2 subvariant of omicron, remain a concern for the future.

“Hopefully, we won't see a surge. That's my prayer every day that this will fall off the face of the Earth,” Willett said. “I don't think it will. But we have seen an improvement.”

State vaccination data shows some western Kentucky counties still have larger proportions of residents who haven’t received any COVID-19 vaccine doses compared to the rest of the state, let alone receiving boosters. Purchase District Health Department Director Kent Koster said he still doesn’t understand why some are skeptical of data from his department showing vaccines prevent severe illness and death from the virus.

“People make up their minds and they think that they don't have to believe the numbers that we're giving them,” Koster said. “It's kind of sad that we can't trust each other.”

His department serves McCracken, Ballard, Carlisle, Hickman and Fulton counties. Vaccination data shows only about 54% of people 75 years or older in those five counties combined have received a booster vaccine dose.

Koster said he doesn’t expect COVID-19 case spikes in the near future with more outdoor activity reducing virus transmission, but he still encouraged people to remain up-to-date with vaccinations or consider getting a first dose.

“As long as an individual gets vaccinated and gets up to date on their vaccines, it's going to be a whole lot less likely that they're going to get COVID, or if they get it, a lot less likely that it's going to cause any type of severe health issues,” Koster said.

"Liam Niemeyer is a reporter for the Ohio Valley Resource covering agriculture and infrastructure in Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia and also serves Assistant News Director at WKMS. He has reported for public radio stations across the country from Appalachia to Alaska, most recently as a reporter for WOUB Public Media in Athens, Ohio. He is a recent alumnus of Ohio University and enjoys playing tenor saxophone in various jazz groups."
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