coronavirus illinois

There's a New Symptom the ‘Arcturus' COVID Variant May be Causing

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A new variant of COVID-19 starting to spread around the United States could be responsible for a new symptom that is unlike any we’ve seen with the virus so far.

That variant, classified as XBB.1.16 by the World Health Organization, was designated as a “variant under monitoring” by the organization last month.

Otherwise known as “Arcturus,” the subvariant of omicron has been reported in more than two dozen countries, and has caused increases in cases in India, among other nations. In the United States, it is responsible for an estimated 9.6% of current cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Officials in India have said that the virus has caused fairly typical symptoms that mirror colds, but there’s potentially a new one: conjunctivitis, which can cause red, itchy eyes, or pink eye.

That symptom has been more prevalent among children and young adults, but it has afflicted adults as well, according to officials.

Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, said there is still some uncertainty over whether the variant is the source of the symptom, however.

"I don't even know that it's a decided thing that this subvariant definitely causes the red, itchy eyes," she told NBC Chicago. "We see a lot of red, itchy eyes this time of year."

While some may be tempted to dismiss that symptom because of seasonal allergies, Arwady said it's prudent to at least take a COVID test to rule the illness out.

“If you’ve got red, itchy eyes, and you think it’s allergies or just a cold, just take a COVID test to be sure,” she said. “Overall, this is still all omicron, which is good news if you’re up-to-date with your COVID vaccines.”

There is not any evidence so far that the variant leads to more serious illness or increased hospitalizations, something that Arwady says shows the importance of being vaccinated.

“This is still at the lowest level where we’re keeping an eye on it, so it’s good for people to be aware,” Arwady said. “If you’ve had your most recent vaccines and you are up-to-date, you have the right protection, including against that subvariant.”

Higher levels of infectivity are being reported with newer variants, but overall they tend to be causing less-severe disease, which is likely the result of higher vaccination rates, higher rates of immunity from previous infection and lower pathogenicity of recent variants, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Overall levels of COVID in the United States, including in the Chicago area, remain low, but experts still advise residents to take proper precautions, including taking COVID tests if they experience symptoms and to wash hands frequently.

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