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JN.1, Governmental Neglect, and the Future of Illness

JN.1, Governmental Neglect, and the Future of Illness

You may, or more likely may not, have heard that there is a new and potent variant of COVID-19 on the rise. The variant, JN. 1, has been traced back to France in September. It was slow to spread at first, responsible for only 5% of cases in November–but now that figure is over 86%. Until very recently, coverage for JN. 1 was extremely sparse, with a quick Googling yielding news results from more off-the-wall publications or pat articles from NBC and the like remarking on its supposedly mild presentation.

But JN. 1 is largely responsible for what may be the 2nd largest surge of the pandemic. The fact that I said "may be" is part of why we need to talk about COVID at all today. Since early last year, when the government ended the public health emergency, much of the robust data collection (which had already been ramped down) was ended as well. Media outlets across the board have subsequently minimized their coverage of COVID, to the point that now we're largely in the dark. For instance, were you aware that Massachusetts General Hospital is having a "capacity disaster," with hundreds of patients without beds? That's the sort of thing we heard about everywhere four years ago. But because the government has decided we should move on, the public goes largely unaware.

The Virus Today

I am going to err on the side of mainstream science more than rely on anecdotal evidence and say that JN. 1 is likely in keeping with all diseases, evolving into less deadly but more contagious variations as time goes on. This means that JN. 1 should be a fairly moderate version of SARS COV-2. It presents with typical COVID symptoms, though fewer patients are reporting a loss of taste or smell. Added to the suite of more typical symptoms is diarrhea–so if you suddenly know a lot of folks with stomach bugs, this is why. Researchers are suggesting that this new addition to the list of symptoms is likely a result of evolutionary pressure–the virus is mutating to favor infection of new types of cells in order to evade the still-rising immune response in its hosts. While diarrhea can be serious, it does not appear to be severe.

Having said that, I will refer you to the previously cited link from Boston.com, in which hundreds of patients in Massachusetts General (a hospital with a capacity of over 1,000) are without beds. This is not because these people have a widdle tummyache. We have to be careful not to underestimate COVID just because we've seen it sweep the globe for several years. Like the flu, COVID is more than capable of appearing mild and turning bad. Hospital numbers are rising across the country, and if Mass General can get overwhelmed, your local facilities can as well.

Governmental Responsibility

No government on the planet has managed to completely stop COVID–from authoritarian responses like China's to a more laissez-faire approach, like Sweden's–so the failure of the United States is not unique. It is, however, utterly deliberate. As haphazard as the Trump administration was in their on-the-fly handling of COVID, the Biden administration saw what worked and what failed and decided that after about a year and a half in office it was time to quit trying. Biden, in September 2022, said that the pandemic was over. A half a year later the national emergency was ended. Funding dried up. Reporting–at least public-facing–had been long foregone. It's this last point, which is not the sole responsibility of the federal government, which I find the most damning.

There is a lot to dislike about Governor Mike DeWine of Ohio–from his painful anti-abortion ad campaign to his recent executive order strangling Trans healthcare–but his early response to the pandemic was honestly to be admired. He was an extremely transparent, highly visible, steadying presence in the chaotic days of that first COVID spring. His nearly-daily briefings provided much needed information and clarity to Ohioans and reinforced the seriousness of the situation. He welcomed actual scientists into the spotlight and fielded hard questions from reporters. And while it's unrealistic to expect such a thing as a daily briefing to continue forever, the drawdown of hospital reporting at the local level was disappointing and ultimately irresponsible, as it was done in part as a measure to fool the public into returning to normal life. I was privy to this personally, as part of my job during the early years of the pandemic was aggregating and reporting hospital data to a FEMA-style regional emergency agency. We began to curtail reporting even while the patients at our hospital continued to come in with COVID, to catch it in the facility, and while we dedicated whole wings to those infected.

Vaccination programs–both at the federal and state level–continued to do their part while other portions of the pandemic response were shuttered. It's difficult to knock the government on that front. As hokey as it was, DeWine even offered a lottery for the newly vaccinated and Columbus, as an example, offered cash for vaccination in addition that I can again personally attest drove hundreds if not thousands to get the shot. But the lack of reporting, the lack of conversation, and the rollback of mandates undercut the continued seriousness of COVID and hampered one of our best weapons against the virus: masking.

Mask Everywhere

Mask mandates were–much like early masks themselves–scraps of little efficacy made here, there, and everywhere. I got my first mask from the sister of a childhood friend who I hadn't thought about in probably twenty years. Mandates came at the state and city level, mostly, along with individual hospital systems, across the country. But they fell apart quickly, with some states ending their mandates as early as May, 2021. Enforcement, of course, was always further piecemeal than that. You surely recall how hotly contested this issue was among the anti-vax and further right, such that you might recall one of the first protests over masking and COVID restrictions resulted in that infamous photo of people gathered at the door of the Ohio Statehouse, looking not unlike a horde of zombies. But while the mask mandates fell, our obligation to mask did not.

I will be the first to say, again, that I have been less than responsible about this. We have literally every reason on the planet to be masking up in public and I have been lax more often than not. We should be masking now, and should always have been. We should be masking to prevent the spread of JN. 1, to keep ourselves healthy, to keep our immuno-compromised friends healthy, and as a general fuck-you to cops. It is simply the least we can do.

We should be keeping masks stocked in our homes, cars, and bugout bags as a matter of course. Moreover, we should be stocking good ones–N95s–as they do more than keep us safe from COVID. We're entering a world that is perpetually on fire, and N95s can help filter out smoke particulates that are pretty awful for your health. They aren't the most comfortable, it's true, and they don't look nearly as cool as just wearing a bandana or something, but they have the added benefit of actually being effective at what they're supposed to do.

While the government wishes we would forget about COVID and simply work until we die, it's up to us to keep ourselves and our communities healthy. We can do so much work toward that simply by wearing a decent mask. They are a powerful visual reminder of what we all went through, and what we're still going through. Let's be mindful of that power, and get back in the habit. COVID isn't going away, and if it's capable of overwhelming hospitals in 2024, it's possible it always will be.