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News about coronavirus in Florida and around the world is constantly emerging. It's hard to stay on top of it all but Health News Florida and WUSF can help. Our responsibility at WUSF News is to keep you informed, and to help discern what’s important for your family as you make what could be life-saving decisions.

COVID-19 variant JN.1 leads a new surge of cases in Florida

Francesca Anacleto, 12, receives her first Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine shot from nurse Jorge Tase, Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021, in Miami Beach, Fla.
Marta Lavandier
A girl receives her first Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine shot in Miami Beach.

Health officials predict that the variant may be more transmissible or is better at evading our immune systems. However, there's no sign so far that JN.1 causes more severe illness than other variants.

COVID-19 variant JN.1 is driving a rise in cases brought on by the winter months.

In the beginning of December, the variant made up about 20% of new COVID-19 cases in the U.S.

Now, JN.1 accounts for about 60% of cases, according to federal health data from the last two weeks.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the proportion of JN.1 COVID cases in the region that includes Florida and surrounding states is at 59.2%.

JN.1 was first detected in the U.S. in September.

Health officials predict that the variant may be more transmissible or is better at evading our immune systems, which is why it is spreading quickly.

However, there's no sign so far that JN.1 causes more severe illness than other circulating variants.

"The primary reasons JN.1 is becoming increasingly dominant seems to be because prior infection and/or prior vaccination has less of a protective effect against infection with this particular variant," said Jason Salemi, professor of epidemiology at the University of South Florida. "This is particularly true for those who have not been infected for a while or who have not had a booster in a while."

The CDC and health experts are recommending that people get the updated vaccine, which was authorized in 2023 and offers protection against the new variant.

National and local COVID trends

Although the number of COVID cases are not as high as previous pandemic peaks, cases are trending upward after the holidays.

Nationally, hospitalizations have increased by about 20%, with total hospital admissions at 34,798 in the week ending on Dec. 30.

In Florida, COVID-related hospitalizations are similarly on the rise. For the same time period, CDC data shows that there were 1,744 people hospitalized with confirmed COVID-19. That's a 22% uptick from the previous week.

At the same time last year, hospitalizations hovered around 3,000. During 2021's pandemic peaks, Florida reported about 16,000 patients.

For further context, the most current number of hospitalizations is about the same as the end of September 2023.

While the severity of the current surge is much lower than previous years, health officials are urging that people still take proper precautions such as wearing masks, socially distancing and keeping up to date on vaccines.

CDC data shows that COVID case rates have increased by about 1% to 8.9% in the region that includes Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi.

The vaccination rate for Florida is about 80%, on par with the national rate. However, the number of people who have kept up with newer vaccines has waned.

About 12% of the Florida population are up-to-date on COVID-19 vaccines, according to the CDC.

As WUSF's general assignment reporter, I cover a variety of topics across the greater Tampa Bay region.