The COVID-19 variant known as XBB.1.16, or arcturus, causes conjunctivitis in those it infects.
COVID-19 antigen home tests are photographed in New York on April 5, 2023. Credit: Patrick Sison / BDN

A new omicron subvariant is spreading in Florida with an odd potential symptom: conjunctivitis.

Helix, a surveillance company that tracks emerging variants across the nation for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, discovered the variant known as XBB.1.16, or arcturus, makes up as much as 5 percent of new COVID cases in Florida. Arcturus appears to be more contagious than other subvariants, and doctors are reporting the strain may be linked to a rise in red itchy eyes.

Health experts said it’s unlikely conjunctivitis would be the only symptom associated with a COVID-19 infection, and note that allergy season is here, too. However, doctors are reporting that along with cough and cold symptoms associated with COVID, children are coming in with “itchy conjunctivitis with sticky eyes, not seen in earlier waves.”

Conjunctivitis is a swelling of the thin layer that lines the white part of the eye and can cause discharge, crusting and cause the whites of the eyes to turn red or pink.

Arcturus was first detected in January in India, where it has triggered a majority of new COVID-19 cases and has particularly impacted the nation’s youth. The World Health Organization has flagged it as a variant to watch.

Florida is one of seven states in the country where arcturus is spreading, according to Helix.

Arcturus was responsible for 9.6 percent of new infections for the week ending April 22, according to CDC estimates. That percentage is up from about 6 percent of cases the week before and about 3 percent two weeks earlier.

Public health experts believe arcturus’ percentage will increase in the coming weeks in Florida and other parts of the country, possibly setting it up to become the next dominant coronavirus strain in the United States. However, cases thus far haven’t caused health care providers to be concerned about an uptick in severe illnesses, hospitalizations or deaths in the weeks ahead.

Overall in Florida, COVID is circulating at relatively low levels. Florida reported only 7,382 cases for the week of April 7, down from 17,329 in early February. More than 7.5 million people in Florida have been confirmed with coronavirus since the start of the pandemic.

By now, at least 16 million people in Florida have had at least one dose of a COVID vaccine.

Last week, the CDC recommended that people ages 65 and older or with weakened immune systems get a second bivalent mRNA booster.

Story by Cindy Krischer Goodman, South Florida Sun Sentinel.