It was a very COVID Christmas for many people this past holiday season. The JN.1 strain of COVID-19 continues to surge throughout the U.S., with infections in some areas hitting their highest level in nearly a year.
The most recent figures, covering the period between Christmas Eve and today, show JN.1 making up 61.6% of all cases in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). For comparison, during the two-week period ending November 11, JN.1 made up just 3% of all cases. By the week of December 9, it was up to 21%.
Wastewater monitoring, which is now the best metric for tracking the virus since fewer people go to a doctor for testing, suggests current viral activity for COVID-19 is “very high,” with the highest viral load being found in the Midwest.
The holidays generally show a rise in COVID cases as friends and family gather, but the increases could continue in January as children return to school and adults return to work. Some health facilities, such as some of those in Los Angeles County and New York City, are concerned enough about the uptick in cases that they are requiring visitors to wear masks once again.
Hospitalizations for COVID diagnoses are up 16.7% in the most recent week (ending December 23), according to the CDC, with a 10% increase in deaths.
While concerning, both of those numbers are notably below where they stood the previous year: 10,000 fewer people were hospitalized with COVID in the lead-up to the 2023 holidays than in 2022, and the average weekly deaths were nearly twice as high last year.
JN.1 is a subvariant of the Omicron—and the CDC notes that existing vaccines, tests, and treatments still work against it.
“At this time, the spread of JN.1 does not appear to pose additional risks to public health beyond that of other recent variants,” the CDC wrote on December 22. “CDC is closely monitoring COVID-19 increases domestically and internationally and will communicate if the situation changes.”
The rise in cases might be more than just seasonal, however. The JN.1 variant has more mutations than other recent strains of COVID. In addition, the number of people who are staying up to date on their vaccinations is waning. The CDC estimates just 19% of adults are up to date on their boosters—and just 8% of children. (Compare that to nearly 70% of adults who have received a flu shot this year and 44% of children.)
JN.1 symptoms are similar to a cold for many patients, with a sore throat and congestion being frequently reported, rather than the loss of taste or smell. Some patients also present with a dry cough. Severe cases can bring shortness of breath, chest pain, or blue- or gray-ish coloration of lips and beneath nail beds.
Health officials advise getting the most recent booster shot to protect yourself and many also suggest wearing a mask in crowded indoor gatherings and on planes and public transportation.