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Now that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has officially expanded eligibility for Pfizer's COVID-19 booster dose for 16- and 17-year-olds, health departments across North Georgia are pushing to get the vaccine into as many residents' arms as possible before holiday travel reaches its peak.

Dr. Gary Voccio, health director for the 10-county Northwest Georgia Health District, said he encourages everyone 16 and older to get a booster shot if eligible to continue to protect against COVID-19 and its variants.

(READ MORE: Have you been billed for COVID-19 tests or treatment? You may be due a reimbursement)

"Most recent evidence indicates that vaccine effectiveness against COVID-19 is waning after the second dose of the vaccine for all adults and for those in the 16- and 17-year age group," Voccio said in a news release Monday. "A booster will help provide continued protection against COVID-19 in this and older age groups."

Spokesperson Logan Boss with the health district told the Times Free Press during a phone call Tuesday that he and other health leaders do not yet know how effective the initial vaccine or boosters will be against the omicron variant but said the focus right now is on "getting as many people as possible protected from as much as possible."

"The boosters certainly increase overall protection against coronavirus, including the delta variant. To what extent the vaccines, including boosters, will be effective against omicron, we just don't know yet. That is one of many things we hope to have a better handle on by the end of the month or early next year," Boss said. "What I can tell you is most of our cases in Georgia are of the delta variant and are among the unvaccinated. While it's still too early to know what to expect with omicron, we know the delta variant is responsible for more than 99% of new COVID cases in Georgia, and we know the vaccine and boosters are effective against delta."

(READ MORE: Tennessee's COVID-19 variant testing lags as omicron cases grow)

Across Northwest Georgia, Boss said the number of fully-vaccinated individuals is still "alarmingly low." The number of people signing up to get booster doses is even lower, he said, and is a cause for concern as the effectiveness of second doses begins to wane.

In Catoosa County, for example, 37% of residents have received the first two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine and 25% of those fully-vaccinated individuals have received an additional booster dose of the vaccine. In more rural North Georgia counties, the numbers are similar.

In Dade County, 31% of people are considered fully vaccinated. Of those individuals, 30% have received a booster dose, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. In Walker County, the Department of Public Health reported that 32% of residents are fully vaccinated and 25% of those eligible residents have gotten a booster.

"We have many people who aren't vaccinated at all yet," Boss said. "While omicron and other variants are a concern, we are still focused on reaching the goal of getting everyone those first vaccinations. That is the best way to fight COVID-19 and ultimately those other variants."

Heading into the holiday, Boss said scientists are expecting the number of COVID-19 cases to increase across the board. To help limit community spread, he encouraged practicing preventative safety measures like social distancing and frequent COVID-19 testing.

(READ MORE: COVID-19 vaccine rates for children vary around Southeast Tennessee)

"Especially during the holidays when people are likely to gather indoors, try to avoid crowds. It really makes a difference even to crack open a window and increase circulation in a room if you're somewhere and forced to gather," he said. "Anyone with symptoms or who believes they may have been exposed should be tested. Do not take the risk of going out with your family members if you think you have COVID-19."

Free COVID-19 vaccine doses and boosters are available at local county health departments across Georgia. Visit nwgapublichealth.org/counties for more information or to set up an appointment.

Contact Kelcey Caulder at kcaulder@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @kelceycaulder.

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