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St. Luke’s warns of new COVID subvariant which may cause pink eye

Fusion Medical Animation

A local health network in Pennsylvania says a new variant of COVID-19 is spreading, along with a new symptom.

St. Luke’s University Health Network said Tuesday that the new strain is an Omicron subvariant known as XBB.1.16, or more commonly called Arcturus.

Compared to previous strains, the new subvariant is more infectious but does not cause worse illness.

St. Luke’s said Arcturus is currently responsible for 10% of COVID-19 cases in the United States and is rapidly increasing.

People who catch Arcturus more frequently develop fevers. The subvariant also appears to have an increased association with developing conjunctivitis, or pink eye.

This condition, which causes localized redness, blurriness, itching and a feeling of grittiness, is usually caused by bacteria, other viruses and particularly at this time of the year, allergies.

According to St. Luke’s, before Arcturus emerged COVID conjunctivitis was seen in previous strains up to 3% of the time. Some reports said this symptom is more frequently seen in children and babies.

Dr. Jeffrey Jahre, St. Luke’s senior vice president of medical and academic affairs and section chief emeritus of infectious diseases said in a statement that differentiating between pink eye caused by COVID-19 or allergies may be difficult.

He noted that the presence of a fever increases the likelihood that a person has COVID.

If another individual in the family has diagnosed COVID, then anyone else in the family experiencing conjunctivitis symptoms should assume that he/she may also have COVID and take appropriate health measures and precautions to avoid affecting others,” Jahre added.

The health network says Acturus COVID conjunctivitis usually resolves within seven days without any permanent damage, and is treated symptomatically.

Anyone caring for a person with conjunctivitis is urged to follow hygienic measures such as hand washing after touching the patient’s eyes or eyewear.

Outbreaks of the new variant have been reported in at least six states – California, Washington, Virginia, Texas, New Jersey and New York. As a result, Jahre said it can be assumed to also be present in Pennsylvania.

He added that COVID-19 vaccines and medications used for other strains, “can also prevent the worst consequences of Arcturus in those who are most vulnerable.”

St. Luke’s said COVID-19 is still an active and evolving virus, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention logs over 13,000 daily reported cases and over 1,000 COVID-related deaths per week.

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Sarit Laschinsky