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A new COVID variant is gaining strength, wastewater samples from across the U.S. show


The U.S. is in full-on respiratory virus season. Most of the country is experiencing high or very high respiratory virus levels, according to the centers for Disease Control and Prevention. NPR health correspondent Pien Huang joins us. Pien, thanks so much for being with us.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: (Imitating coughing) Excuse me. What's out there?

HUANG: Well, there is a lot - a lot of virus out there, Scott. We are, as you mentioned, in the thick of winter respiratory virus season. So there's RSV. There's flu. There's COVID. There's common cold viruses. And they all get a boost during the holidays when people travel and gather. I talked to Amy Kirby, who runs the National Wastewater Surveillance program at CDC, and she says, if you look at the wastewater data, COVID levels right now are even higher than they were last season. But still, she says...

AMY KIRBY: We are still very far below the levels that we were seeing in 2022 with the omicron peak. So we're not looking at that kind of, you know, really massive wave of infections. This is much more on par with what we saw last year.

HUANG: And even though the level of COVID is higher than it was last year at this time, other COVID metrics, like ER visits and hospitalization rates, those are lower this year, the CDC says.

SIMON: Does that mean we're changing what I'll refer to as our relationship with COVID?

HUANG: In some senses, yes. I mean, what it means right now is that COVID infections are causing serious disease less often than they did in previous years. But COVID still is the most serious virus right now. Last week, for instance, it put 35,000 new people in the hospital. At least 1,200 people died from it. And that is a lot more than flu. So far this season, hospital capacity has been generally stable, which is good news because that means that people who need care can generally get it.

SIMON: What about the new COVID variants though?

HUANG: OK. So the dominant variant right now is one called JN.1 Here in the U.S., it was first detected in September, and by Thanksgiving it was responsible for around 8% of U.S. cases. Now it's up to 60%. And JN.1 is considered an omicron variant, though there's been some debate over whether it deserves its own Greek letter since it has a lot of genetic differences. But the symptoms are about the same. And the tests, the vaccines and the treatments that we currently have do work against it.

SIMON: What should people be doing now, given all of this?

HUANG: Well, public health officials are really leaning into encouraging people to use the tools we have. So that starts with awareness. You know, there are maps that the CDC and local health departments are putting out that can help people figure out how much virus is circulating where they live, and it's not too late to get vaccinated. You know, half of us adults have not gotten a flu shot this season. Four out of five haven't gotten the COVID booster. And this is especially important for older adults who are at higher risk of dying from these illnesses. And lastly, if you are sick, like a lot of people are right now, the advice is to stay home so you don't spread it on. Get tested in case you qualify for some prescription medications that can help you get better, and to generally just take good care of yourself and the people around you are.

SIMON: Thanks very much. NPR health correspondent Pien Huang.

HUANG: You're welcome, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Pien Huang
Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.