COVID and flu surge could strain hospitals as JN.1 variant grows, CDC warns

Hospitals and emergency rooms may be forced to ration care by the end of this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned Thursday, saying the latest trends in COVID-19 and the flu are now on track to again strain America’s health care system. The new COVID variant JN.1 accounts for an increasing proportion of cases, CDC tracking shows.

“Covid-19 hospitalizations rise rapidly,” the agency said in its weekly update. “Since the summer, public health officials have observed an increase in multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C), which is caused by COVID-19. Influenza activity is increasing in most parts of the country. RSV activity remains high in many areas.”

The CDC has been encouraging people to be vaccinated as the peak of this year’s mix of three seasonal respiratory viruses — influenza, COVID-19 and RSV – approaching.

IN pediatric hospitals, the CDC says beds are “already nearly as full as they were this time last year” in some parts of the country. Data from emergency rooms published On Wednesday, emergency room visits tracked a nearly doubling of school-age children last week.

The increase, driven largely by an acceleration in flu cases, follows weeks of largely plateauing emergency room numbers nationwide ahead of Thanksgiving.

Similar to this time last year, flu emergency room visits are now surpassing COVID-19 for the first time in months across most age groups. Only in seniors does the rate of COVID-19 remain many times higher than the flu.

Nursing homes have seen one steep climb in reported COVID-19 in recent weeks. In the Midwest territory spanning Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin, infections in nursing home residents have already topped the numbers seen at last year’s peak.

Is there a new COVID-19 variant? What you need to know about JN.1

A new COVID-19 variant called JN.1 has been driving a growing share of the latest wave of infections, officials estimate.

The JN.1 lineage – a closely related descendant of highly mutated BA.2.86 variant which the researchers first warned about during the summer – was estimated last week in the CDC’s projections to make up as much as 29% of infections nationwide. It’s up from 8.8% at the end of November.

Health authorities have closely followed the acceleration of BA.2.86 and its descendants, like JN.1, around the world in recent months. More than 4 out of 10 test results from the CDC’s airport testing program for international travelers has turned up these strains.

A panel of experts convened by the World Health Organization concluded this month that JN.1’s changes were not steep enough to warrant a new revision of this season’s vaccinesbut recognized early data suggesting these shots were less effective at neutralizing the strain.

“CDC expects that JN.1 will continue to increase as a proportion of SARS-CoV-2 genomic sequences. It is currently the fastest growing variant in the United States,” CDC said last week.

“Right now we do not know to what extent JN.1 may be contributing to these increases or possible increases through the rest of December like those seen in previous years,” they wrote.

So far, however, the CDC has said that JN.1’s rapid spread so far does not appear to be leading to any increases in the severity of COVID-19.

How big is the vaccination difference?

As COVID-19 and other respiratory viruses have accelerated in recent weeks, health officials say they have also been closely monitoring an unprecedented drop in vaccinations this season.

Data from insurance claims implies flu vaccinations in adults are about 8 million doses behind vaccination levels seen last year. CDC’s study data suggests that influenza vaccination in children is also down about 5 percentage points from the same time last year.

“Making up the lost volume is going to be very difficult or not possible,” vaccine manufacturers concluded at a recent stakeholder meeting with the CDC, according to a read aloud from the National Adult and Influenza Immunization Summit.

Health officials have also urged providers to redouble their efforts to stave off COVID-19 vaccinations this year, especially for those most at risk of serious illness like seniors.

IN nursing homeonly a third of residents and less than 1 in 10 staff are vaccinated with this season’s COVID-19 shot.

“We’re not seeing the uptake in vaccines that we’d like to see,” CDC Director Dr. Mandy Cohen to physicians at an American Medical Association event Tuesday.

Cohen also cited research data on taking up the RSV vaccinations, which were green light for the first time this year in older adults. About 16% of adults age 60 and older say they have had the shot.

“We recognize that’s too low, and that’s one of the reasons we wanted to have this conversation,” she said.

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