WE’RE NOW ENTERING the fifth year of Covid-19, and it can be difficult to keep up with the new variants that keep popping up. And yes, there’s yet another one floating around this winter: JN.1.
It follows the EG.5 (Eris), FL.1.5.1 (Fornax), XBB.1.16, and XBB.1.5, which were circulating during the fall.
JN.1 has been the main variant circulating since December, says David Dobrzynski, M.D., an infectious disease physician at the University of Rochester Medical Center. But, since it’s relatively new, he says doctors don’t know everything about it just yet.
“It’s a variant of interest, but not really a variant of concern,” he says. “It doesn’t seem to be causing severe disease. But, at the same time, that doesn’t mean we should be lax about it.”
The CDC says Covid activity is “currently high,” and infections, hospitalizations, and deaths have increased over the past few weeks. The agency says JN.1 could be driving the spread of Covid this winter.
Also to blame for the recent increase in Covid—as well as flu—cases could be the cold temperatures keeping everyone indoors and the recent holiday gatherings, Dr. Dobrzynski says. “It’s just easier for these viruses to spread.”
If you’re feeling the mental fatigue of staying up-to-date on the latest variant and how serious it might be compared to others, you’re not alone. Here are some things to know about the JN.1 variant.
It’s too early to tell how contagious JN.1 is.
The JN.1, which is closely related to the BA.2.86 variant that the CDC has tracked since August, was first detected in September 2023. But it didn’t become the main strain until late December, according to the CDC’s Covid Data Tracker.
“When a variant kind of creeps up to become the predominant strain, we always worry about it being more transmissible or evading our vaccines,” Dr. Dobrzynski says. “Right now, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that that’s the case.”
However, he says medical experts are still sussing out all the details about JN.1.
Hospitalizations are increasing.
Hospitalizations because of Covid increased about 20 percent from November to December 2023, according to the CDC.
Dr. Dobrzynski says it’s difficult to say whether that’s because JN.1 is more transmissible or because respiratory illnesses generally tend to increase during the winter.
Most hospitalized patients have JN.1 but that’s likely just because it’s the most prominent variant circulating, he explains.
“It doesn’t seem like it’s necessarily causing more severe disease,” Dr. Dobrzynski says. “We’re just seeing more Covid cases, just like we are with flu and RSV, in the past couple of weeks.”
The most common Covid symptoms of 2024
According to Bernadette Boden-Albala, MPH, Dr.P.H., director and founding dean of the University of California, Irvine’s Program in Public Health, just like with most winters, it’s not uncommon for people to be dealing with coughing, congestion, and sore throats right now—all of which can signal the flu, common cold, RSV, and, yes, Covid.
Symptoms of JN.1 resemble the symptoms of past variants, including:
- Runny nose
- Sore throat
- Shortness of breath
- Extreme tiredness
- Dry coughs
- Muscle aches
It’s not too late to get the latest vaccine.
If you haven’t recently had Covid or been vaccinated against it, you’re more susceptible to infection, Boden-Albala says. Getting the latest Covid vaccine is crucial.
“It does seem like the vaccine still offers protection against the JN.1 variant,” Dr. Dobrzynski says.
The CDC reports that fewer people have gotten the latest shot—and, flu and RSV vaccination rates have also been low.
There’s no timeline for getting the latest Covid shot. Dr. Dobrzynski suggests getting jabbed as soon as you can. It can reduce your chances of contracting Covid, getting severely sick, and having long Covid.
You should get tested if you feel sick.
Since any wintertime illness symptoms will still beg the question, “Is it a cold, flu, allergies, or Covid?” you should still get tested to avoid infecting family, friends, and others in your community—and to know if you should mask up to protect others you come in contact with, Boden-Albala says.
Additionally, it’s also still important to get tested to assist with case reporting, which is crucial for research so organizations like the CDC and WHO can continue to monitor and identify any new variants of concern if they arise, she adds.
Take steps to protect yourself and others.
While it may be difficult to completely avoid getting sick if you regularly see other people in public places or have kids in school, there are steps you can take to lessen your chances of falling ill.
“These viruses will continue if we don’t encourage up-to-date booster vaccinations and protective measures like masking and staying away from people when feeling sick, masking in an indoor situation with large crowds, and always practicing proper hand washing,” Boden-Albala says.
Isolating and quarantining are also still recommended if you test positive for Covid—or, if you have a fever and think you might have Covid, Dr. Dobryznski says.
“It’s always safe to assume that maybe you do have Covid,” he adds. “Wait for your fever to go away, to stop coughing to go back to work or be around family members in large gatherings.”
Erica Sweeney is a writer who mostly covers health, wellness and careers. She has written for The New York Times, HuffPost, Teen Vogue, Parade, Money, Business Insider and many more.
Emilia Benton is a Houston-based freelance writer and editor. In addition to Runner’s World, she has contributed health, fitness and wellness content to Women’s Health, SELF, Prevention, Healthline, and the Houston Chronicle, among other publications. She is also an 11-time marathoner, a USATF Level 1-certified running coach, and an avid traveler.