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Justice: COVID-19 boosters available in W.Va. now

CHARLESTON — 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.”

Music, arts abundant during Foxfire festival

ASHLAND — Music and arts took center stage Friday as the inaugural Foxfire Music and Arts Festival kicked off at the Ashland Riverfront.

The two-day outdoor event, which is being produced by the Paramount Arts Center, featured performances by Old Crow Medicine Show, Colter Wall, Ona, Buffalo Wabs & The Price Hill Hustle, Eric Bolander, Charlie Woods & Deep Hollow and Patrick Leland McKnight on Friday evening. Saturday’s bill features Whiskey Myers, Blues Traveler, Morgan Wade, John R. Miller, Josh Brown & The Hard Livin’ Legends, Shelby Lore and Cole Chaney.

General admission tickets are $39.99, while VIP tickets are available for $149.99. VIP ticketholders have access to a special entrance, seats next to the stage, a lounge area for free snacks and beer purchases, and separate restrooms.

Music will resume at 3 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 25. Doors open at 2 p.m.

COVID-19 surge, lack of W.Va. mandates halt Autumn Colors Express runs this fall

CHARLESTON — The Autumn Colors Express, the popular fall excursion train of vintage passenger rail cars operating between Huntington, Charleston and Hinton, won’t be running next month as scheduled.

Rail Excursion Management Co. (Railexco) announced Wednesday that scheduled runs of the train this Oct. 21-24 have been canceled over concerns about West Virginia’s surge in COVID-19 cases and the lack of any state public health mandates. The train is expected to return in October 2022.

“The question became, is it ethical to risk the health of our riders?” Railexco CEO Adam Auxier said. “Had a bunch of my passengers gotten sick or worse, I couldn’t live with that.”

He said the company decided to postpone the 2021 runs, rather than hope that the state’s COVID-19 surge would be contained by late next month.

“We just found ourselves in a position where we couldn’t bet on cases going down by then,” Auxier said.

This marks the second straight year that the pandemic has forced postponement of the Autumn Colors Express, which had a successful inaugural run in 2019, replacing the defunct New River Train, which operated for 52 years on the same route.

Auxier said ticket sales for the 2021 runs had been strong but that, in the past month, sales in the key markets of Columbus, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh had dried up as news reports showed West Virginia experiencing one of the worst surges of COVID-19 in the nation.

He also said calls and emails from ticketed passengers asking to either postpone their trips to 2022 or requesting cancellations had jumped in the past month.

“It’s a very complicated situation for us,” Auxier said. “We didn’t have any statewide guidance for safety measures. It’s been left up to the counties and localities.”

Auxier said a particular concern is that a sizable percentage of excursion passengers are senior citizens.

“Our ridership is older, and the state itself is older,” he said.

He said ticketed passengers have the option of retaining their tickets for 2022 runs or requesting refunds.

Auxier said Railexco has a contract with Amtrak to provide engines and train crews for the Autumn Colors Express for three years, but he said that does not have to be three consecutive years.

“We’ve been on the phone with them a lot this month,” he said of Amtrak management. “They’ve been very supportive of our return in 2022.”

Autumn Colors Express runs coincide with the Railroad Days festival in Hinton. Auxier said he has been in touch with Railroad Days organizers and said they are considering having a scaled-down, one-day event, in lieu of the trains not operating.

After the now-defunct Collis P. Huntington Railroad Historical Society announced in February 2019 that it would not be operating the New River Train, Railexco, a Midwest-based rail excursion and private-car charter company, jumped in.

By May 2019, it was able to finalize a deal and formally announce resumption of the fall excursion train under the new moniker.

Faculty Senate at Marshall supports vaccine mandate for students, staff

HUNTINGTON — The Marshall University Faculty Senate voted Thursday to support a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for students and staff, but President Jerome Gilbert doesn’t believe one is necessary.

The vote by senators took place during a virtual meeting and after a discussion of why such a mandate might be necessary and some expressed their concerns about potential ramifications for people who choose not to take the vaccine for personal or religious reasons.

The vote, which was 36-5 in favor of recommending a mandate, does not create any kind of mandate on Marshall University’s campus, but rather confirms the support from the Faculty Senate if any potential mandate would be presented in the future.

In his comments on the matter, Gilbert said he doesn’t believe the university needs to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine given the high rate of vaccination among students and staff at Marshall.

“We continue to encourage, not require, (COVID-19) vaccines, and that has resulted in our employees being vaccinated at a rate of 87%. Our students on campus are now vaccinated at a rate of 77%, so our total vaccination rate is 79%,” Gilbert said.

Those who are unvaccinated, he added, are tested weekly. The university is equipped to test between 500 and 600 people daily and is focusing its testing resources on unvaccinated individuals, though tests are available for individuals who have received the COVID-19 vaccine.

“We have a very robust testing system. I think that we are doing a good job of containing the virus, and I do not think that mandatory vaccination is necessary due to our low infection rate,” Gilbert said. “I stand fully prepared to change direction when and if conditions on campus were to worsen, but presently we have a very safe campus and low infection rate.”

According to the university’s COVID-19 dashboard, 71 cases have been identified in students since Sept. 10. In addition, five faculty members and 14 staff members have tested positive.