Coronavirus testing at the San Diego County lab, Feb. 28, 2020. (Matt Hoffman/KPBS)

Pink eye may be a sign of COVID-19.

San Diego County public health experts say XBB.1.16, an emerging offshoot of the Omicron variant which has reportedly been associated with itchy, watery eyes, has a chance to soon take up a larger share of local COVID-19 cases.

Why this matters

Emerging COVID-19 variants can bring with them new symptoms, potentially posing challenges for local health systems.

The new variant — informally called “Arcturus” — has gained ground as COVID-19 levels have generally fallen across the county so far this year. The most recent public health data shows the county counted 694 cases of any variant, 98 hospitalizations from the disease and four deaths during the week ending April 22.

XBB.1.16 has only held a sliver of the total proportion of COVID-19 since epidemiologists first spotted it in local wastewater in March. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a similar strain called XBB.1.5 has claimed a majority of the county’s cases for the past two months.

County spokesperson Gig Conaughton said the new variant has appeared in other countries for several months. (The World Health Organization called it a “variant of interest” on April 17.)

“San Diego County Public Health cannot predict what will happen with the XBB.1.16 lineage here,” he said, “but some other variants previously moved from the East Coast to California and eventually increased in San Diego County wastewater.”

Health care workers in California are not required to report pink eye — also known as conjunctivitis — to the government, Conaughton said. That means it may be difficult to track how closely the variant runs in parallel with reports of itchy, watery eyes. 

San Diego State University epidemiology professor Eyal Oren said the variant’s array of symptoms, while concerning, do not raise more alarm compared to those of other lineages.

“It’s important to remember that this is one subvariant of about 600 that we’re aware of that have come from Omicron,” he said, “and it doesn’t seem any more lethal or any [more] severe than most of them.”

Still, he added that the variant’s presence may help to remind people that COVID-19 remains an issue.

“I don’t think we’re out of the woods — COVID is around. But I also don’t think there is a red flag we have to wave right now,” Oren said.

Corinne McDaniels-Davidson, who directs the SDSU Institute for Public Health, said she couldn’t comment on the variant specifically. But she wrote in an email to inewsource that new variants can come with a risk of surges.

“I’d encourage people to keep an eye on things like the wastewater dashboard and consider adding layers of protection if/when they see increasing COVID in the community,” she said.

Conaughton recommended some of these protective measures.

“Proper hygiene, handwashing and avoiding touching eyes reduce the odds of getting conjunctivitis and many other viruses, including COVID-19,” he said.

Walk-in clinic locations and appointment information for the COVID-19 and flu vaccines are available on the state’s MyTurn website. RiteAid, CVS and other major pharmacies can also provide vaccines. More information can be found on the county’s website.

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

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Matt Kristoffersen was a reporting intern for inewsource. He had previously reported for The Press-Enterprise, The Sacramento Bee and The New York Times, among other outlets. In 2020, Kristoffersen began working on The New York Times’ Coronavirus Vaccine Tracker. He has followed hundreds of vaccine...