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New COVID variant of interest comes to Florida with a common allergy symptom: pinkeye

eye of a caucasian boy reddened with conjunctivitis caused by allergy
eye of a caucasian boy reddened with conjunctivitis caused by allergy

There is still no formal evidence that conjunctivitis is connected to XBB.1.16, which is only beginning to spread globally but makes up less than 5% of the Florida cases and 12% of those nationwide.

A new COVID-19 variant is making up a small number of new cases in Florida, but it comes with a common symptom during allergy season: pinkeye, or conjunctivitis.

There are concerns that the omicron variant XBB.1.16 (nicknamed Arcturus) is also causing pinkeye even though that symptom has not been formally linked to the virus.

More study is needed, but William Schaffner, a professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told the Washington Post that XBB.1.16 is occurring “where they’ve documented community spread of this virus.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, allergic conjunctivitis produces intense itching, tearing and swelling in both eyes. It may occur with other allergy symptoms, such as itchy nose, sneezing or scratchy throat.

Some medical experts suggest getting a COVID test if presenting pinkeye in addition to typical COVID symptoms such as fever or chills, cough, headache, or loss of taste or smell.

According to CDC, Arcturus made up about 11 percent of the cases in the South and 12 percent nationwide this past week. The XBB.1.5 variant still dominates with about three-quarters of the reported cases.

Helix, a surveillance company that tracks variants for the CDC, says Arcturus covers up to 5 percent of the new Florida cases, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported last week.

XBB.1.16 was recently recognized as a variant of interest by the World Health Organization after it was first reported in India in January. Since then, it was been found in 31 countries.

WHO says XBB.1.16 shows signs of spreading, but as of last week there was no evidence that it causes more severe disease than previous versions of the virus.

As of Thursday, a reported 88,219 Florida residents had died of COVID-19 since the pandemic started in early 2020, according to data released by the state Department of Health. Of those, 68,234 were age 65 or older.

Originally founded in December 2006 as an independent grassroots publication dedicated to coverage of health issues in Florida, Health News Florida was acquired by WUSF Public Media in September 2012.