The new variant, JN.1 presents with similar symptoms as earlier coronavirus strains, but may be more transmissible.
The most recent COVID vaccines should help lower your chances of serious illness or hospitalization from JN.1.
Until the surge is over, the best things you can do to protect yourself and your family are getting vaccinated, wearing a mask in crowded spaces and testing if you have symptoms.
A new COVID-19 variant is in town and it's a doozy. Named the JN.1 variant, it's quickly becoming the dominant strain. The most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that JN.1 is currently responsible for 62% of all instances of SARS-CoV-2. Two weeks ago, the CDC said JN.1 made up less than half (44%) of all COVID-19 cases. This is a steep rise from a mid-November report that stated only 3.3% of COVID-19 cases were due to JN.1.
This variant appears to evolve more quickly than other variants, according to Eyal Oren, Ph.D., a professor of epidemiology specializing in respiratory health at San Diego State University’s School of Public Health. “[This] has allowed it to spread rapidly, and it now accounts for a majority of COVID cases,” he says.
If you've had more colleagues, friends or relatives who've contracted COVID-19 in the last few weeks than you did a few months ago, data shows you're not alone. CDC officials test wastewater weekly to find out if an infectious disease is circulating in a community — even if people don’t have symptoms. The CDC lists current wastewater viral activity for SARS-CoV-2 to be “very high” across the country. So we dug into what everyone needs to know about JN.1 — the COVID-19 symptoms to look for and how you can protect yourself and your family.
CDC’s National Wastewater Surveillance System (NWSS) monitors SARS-CoV-2 levels across the US, allowing public health officials to identify spikes in cases. Read about how recent wastewater sample data is being used to monitor recent trends in @USATODAY: https://t.co/jVEAfo50cK pic.twitter.com/LGmOHU9UN1
— CDC Emerging Infections (@CDC_NCEZID) January 19, 2024
What is the JN.1 variant of COVID-19 and how contagious is it?
Compared to BA.2.86, a "parent" variant that has been around since August, JN.1 has a single mutation in its spike protein that may alter some of the traits of the virus, explains Dr. Oren. Although the CDC says that JN.1 does not appear to cause more severe cases of COVID-19, the rapid spread indicates “that it is either more transmissible or better at evading our immune systems” than other variants.
Cold temperatures that send us indoors may be exasperating the problem. “This winter has definitely seen an increase in both cases of COVID and other respiratory diseases,” says Dr. Oren. “Unfortunately, all three illnesses (COVID, cold, flu) as well as RSV, which causes bronchiolitis and pneumonia among children and the elderly, have been sweeping through the U.S., as they did the past year.”
What are the symptoms of JN.1?
The good news is that we’ve been here before, so we can better handle this new variant. According to Dr. Oren and the CDC, JN.1 does not currently appear to have different symptoms from other variants.
Typical symptoms of COVID-19 may include:
Fever or chills
Shortness of breath
Loss of taste or smell
“Symptoms may vary more based on each person’s immune system than any other factor,” says Dr. Oren. “This is likely also true for long-term consequences after infection, such as long COVID.”
Additionally, as with other COVID-19 strains, those at higher risk for more severe outcomes will continue to be at increased risk and “should take steps to protect themselves,” says Dr. Oren. This includes people with one or more underlying medical conditions, those age 65 and older and those who are unvaccinated or have not gotten the most recent COVID-19 vaccine booster.
Is there a vaccine for JN.1?
There isn't a vaccine that's designed specifically for JN.1, but the most “important preventative tool to minimize the effects” of the virus is getting your shots, says Dr. Oren.
Moderna, Pfizer and other companies with updated COVID-19 shots have been shown to protect against JN.1, a recent study shows.
According to the CDC's latest report, though, “not enough Americans are vaccinated.” Only 8% of children and 19% of adults report receiving the updated COVID-19 vaccine. Among the highest risk group — adults age 65 and older — only 38% have received the booster during the 2023-24 season. This is “concerning given that they are at higher risk of hospitalization from COVID-19,” says the CDC.
The CDC expects COVID-19 activity to continue to increase over the next month and encourages people to get the updated vaccine, which can offer protection against severe illness and hospitalization.
And with RSV rates rising close to 2022 levels at the same time, older adults and parents of newborns should consider getting the RSV vaccine as well. “The trio of vaccines against COVID, flu and RSV (for people over 60) can reduce severe disease associated with respiratory viruses this season,” adds Dr. Oren.
How to protect yourself from JN.1
The basics still apply: In addition to getting vaccinated, it's smart to wear a mask and get tested if you have symptoms.
“Airborne viruses may spread more readily in an environment where people don’t wear masks or go to crowded settings,” says Dr. Oren. “Wearing a mask, particularly if you know you are at increased risk, provides protection.”
Along with getting the updated COVID vaccine and masking in confined spaces, Dr. Oren says that “testing if symptomatic or exposed” and “potentially getting treatment if testing positive” also helps to stop the spread of COVID-19.
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