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Health district director explains JN.1, a new COVID-19 variant

A portrait of Dr. Elaine Perry, Health Director for Richmond and Henrico
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Dr. Elaine Perry, Health Director for Richmond and Henrico, is photographed in her office on Thursday, January 11, 2024 in Richmond, Virginia.

Dr. Elaine Perry discusses transmission, precautions.

A new COVID-19 variant known as JN.1 is spreading across the U.S., and cases are ticking up in Virginia.

VPM News Morning Edition Host Phil Liles recently spoke with Dr. Elaine Perry, director of the Richmond & Henrico Health Districts, about the new strain and its local effects.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Phil Liles: Dr. Perry, we have a new variant out there — JN.1. What are the symptoms?

Dr. Elaine Perry: So the symptoms, by and large, are very similar to the other variants that we've seen over the past few years. So, people feeling a lot of congestion, fatigue. Some people have a fever, but some people don't. But also that cough and overall head stuffiness.

There are some people who are getting more severe symptoms, though, to the point where they really start to have difficulty breathing. And definitely, we recommend that people who start to develop these more severe symptoms — shortness of breath, difficulty breathing — at that point, you really do need to reach out to your healthcare professional to get some care.

Is there any big difference between this mutation from the original virus?

At this point, it doesn't look like it's causing significantly more or less severe disease. And we have gone through so many different cycles of variants over the past few years. We also don't know because most people at this point who have COVID-19 are not getting tested in a way that we could even check to see what the variant is. So, we're relying on small sample sizes of people who do get tested and then their samples do get typed out.

How transmissible is the JN.1 variant?

It does seem to be very transmissible. Again, it's hard to know, specifically, the percentage transmissibility compared to other variants. But we do know we are seeing a lot more COVID-19 over the past couple of weeks here. We do anticipate that to continue as people are coming back from holidays and kids are back in school. And we know when that happens, you can see an increase in the circulation of viruses. So, we do expect the numbers for COVID-19 to continue [to increase], at least in the next few weeks.

Is it possible to be diagnosed with three viruses at the same time?

So, that is a possibility.

Unfortunately, getting one of those respiratory viruses doesn't mean that you're protected from the others. So, right now, the two main respiratory viruses that we are seeing circulating are COVID-19, as we just spoke about, but then also influenza. Now there are a whole host of other respiratory viruses out there.

That third one that you're referring to most likely is RSV — or the respiratory syncytial virus. And it would be unusual, but not impossible, to be infected with all three of those.

The good news that we have about RSV is, at this point, it does appear to be on the decline. The bad news is, unfortunately, both influenza and COVID-19 are on their way up.

How do we protect ourselves against this virus?

Well, the most important thing to do to protect yourself and the people around you is, if you have not already gotten that updated 2023-’24 COVID-19 vaccine, please do get that vaccine. It is not too late.

The next thing to do is very important. If you have already contracted that variant or others, please stay home when you're sick. Really try to minimize your contact with other people. This virus spreads person to person — respiratory transmission — in our sneezes, in our coughs. And so, by staying home, you're really helping stop that spread.

And then basic public health recommendations regarding washing your hands, coughing or sneezing into your elbow or into a tissue and masking does help reduce the transmission of respiratory viruses.

For more information about vaccines and circulating viruses, visit the Richmond & Henrico Health Districts website.


Phil Liles is VPM's morning news host.