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February 26, 2024

New Variant JN.1 Drives Record COVID Surge Across US

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Jan 5, 2024

A new variant of the COVID-19 virus, dubbed JN.1, is fueling a major surge in cases across the United States. According to data from the CDC, the JN.1 variant now accounts for over 50% of new COVID infections and is on track to become the dominant strain.

Rapid Spread Over Holidays

The JN.1 variant is believed to have first emerged in late November, but began spreading rapidly over the holiday period. By late December, outbreaks were being reported in multiple states.

“We believe increased travel and indoor gatherings around Thanksgiving and Christmas provided the ideal conditions for this highly contagious new variant to spread widely,” said CDC Director Dr. Julie Morita at a Jan 3 press conference.

The following table outlines the timeline of the JN.1 variant spread:

Date Event
Late November 2023 First infections with JN.1 variant emerge
Mid December 2023 Localized outbreaks detected in NY, IL, CA
Late December 2023 JN.1 makes up 10-30% of samples sequenced nationally
Early January 2024 JN.1 comprises over 50% of new cases sequenced

Officials warn the variant’s rapid growth rate means it is likely to swamp the healthcare system if left unchecked.

Potential for More Severe Illness

So far, most evidence suggests the JN.1 infections cause similar severity to previous Omicron lineages. However, experts note a lack of data makes it difficult to conclusively determine the new variant’s virulence.

“This variant is showing some worrying signs that it may cause more severe disease,” says Tulane University epidemiologist Dr. Celine Gounder. “We need more time and data to know for sure.”

Gounder points out that even if it proves comparable on an individual level, JN.1’s increased transmissibility means substantially larger numbers of severe infections.

“Hospitals are already overwhelmed in many regions dealing with this wave,” Gounder adds. “If cases continue rising at this pace our healthcare system simply will not be able to cope.”

New Dominant Strain by February

Modelers estimate the JN.1 variant is at least 30% more transmissible than past versions of Omicron. Some project it may be up to 60% more contagious. Either way, it appears primed to rapidly overtake other circulating lineages.

“This is far and away the most contagious variant we have seen thus far,” cautions Yale epidemiologist Dr Amyn Malik. “At its current trajectory, I’d expect JN.1 to be responsible for at least 80% of US infections by early February.”

The University of Washington’s influential COVID model now projects daily infections in the US peaking at over 250,000 in early February – shattering previous records set last winter.

New Symptoms Emerge

Doctors on the frontlines are reporting distinctly new symptoms accompanying JN.1 infections not seen with prior variants. These include:

  • Anxiety
  • Persistent trouble sleeping
  • Severe body aches
  • Temporary hearing loss
  • Eye discharge/pain

“We are definitely noticing some new patterns with this wave of infections,” notes Dr. Ana Martinez who runs a large clinic network in Houston. “Both the severity and breadth of symptoms seem worse.”

Martinez stresses many patients test negative on rapid tests when first symptomatic, only later testing positive via PCR tests. She urges anyone experiencing multiple symptoms to isolate and pursue confirmatory testing.

Mitigation Measures Insufficient

Public health experts widely agree current efforts are unlikely to substantially slow the variant’s advance. While contagiousness estimates vary, all are high enough to overcome measures like indoor masking and intermittent quarantines.

“Mask mandates may take the edge off things, but they won’t bend the curve with something spreading this efficiently,” says Harvard infectious disease specialist Dr. Sarah Fortune. “That really leaves rapid boosters and societal restrictions like capacity limits as our only tools to materially impact the trajectory.”

However, most locations have yet to implement significant public health measures in response to the surge. The public also appears increasingly unwilling to accept major disruptions to daily life.

“Pandemic fatigue has clearly set in for so many,” acknowledges CDC Director Morita. “But this virus isn’t tired yet – and we need to muster the will for one more push.”

Long COVID Impact May Worsen

With large infection totals looming, experts worry about increased burden of long COVID cases. Recent estimates suggest more than 30 million Americans already suffer ongoing symptoms months after initial infections. That tally could grow substantially larger given the scope of the current Omicron wave.

“Long COVID has always correlated very closely with infection totals – typically 20-30% will experience prolonged issues,” notes Dr. Greg Poland, infectious disease specialist at the Mayo Clinic. “If this wave infects over 100 million, which seems well within reach, we could see upwards of 40 million saddled with lingering symptoms.”

Researchers remain uncertain whether vaccination protects against long COVID occurrence. However, reinfections appear much more likely to spur lasting effects than initial bouts.

“For those relying on prior immunity, it may be prudent to consider taking added precautions if possible,” Poland advises. “Reinfections seem to really increase risks of long term symptoms.”

Closing Analysis

Nearly three years into the pandemic, the arrival of the JN.1 variant serves as a harsh reminder the virus retains ability to thwart expectations. This “sub-variant of a sub-variant” has scientists racing to keep up with its rapid evolution.

Many countries continue lifting restrictions amidst pandemic fatigue from their populations. But the pathogens remains unpredictable – and unconcerned with human desires for normalcy.

This surge shows many have wrongly assumed the virus would conveniently fade into the background. Instead, it continues demonstrating a capacity for improbable comebacks right when we expect it least.

JN.1’s emergence leaves the world once again on unsteady footing regarding COVID’s trajectory into 2024 and beyond. But one lesson remains clear: those who fail to learn from this pandemic’s many humbling surprises are doomed to repeat them.

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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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