COVID testing
Coronavirus testing at the San Diego County lab. (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.

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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.

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