COVID subvariant 'Arcturus' now in Tri-State, may cause pink eye

A COVID-19 testing street sign in Midtown Manhattan
A COVID-19 testing street sign in Midtown Manhattan. Photo credit Spencer Platt/Getty Images

NEW YORK (1010 WINS/WCBS 880) -- Arcturus, a highly infectious subvariant of the coronavirus that may cause "pink eye," is in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

Technically known as XBB.1.16, the subvariant sparked a new wave of illness in India, where some places reinstated mask mandates. The World Health Organization labeled it a "variant of concern" on April 17.

Recorded cases of Arcturus first showed up in New York in January and then appeared in New Jersey. Connecticut saw its first cases last week. As of early May, the subvariant is in more than half of U.S. states, making up about 10% of cases.

The subvariant can cause conjunctivitis, or pink eye, especially in children. Symptoms include itchy, swollen eyes and increased tear production.

A warning last week from the Los Angeles Department of Public Health made headlines for noting the variant's potential to cause pink eye, though the alert cautioned it's "too early to know with certainty if XBB.1.16 is truly associated with higher rates of conjunctivitis, amid an already active allergy season."

Overall, COVID-19 cases remain low, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is watching to see if Arcturus takes off. While the subvariant spreads easily, it doesn’t appear to cause more serious illness.

Dr. Thomas Balcezak, the chief clinical officer at Yale New Haven Health System, said we are learning to live with COVID-19.

"It's continuing to mutate, it's continuing to change and evolve, but I don't think there's any special concern," Balcezak said, calling XBB.1.16 "just one more in a long and probably forever string of variants."

The doctor noted people should still keep up with vaccinations and also test and isolate when they have symptoms.

"I think right now we're going to live with COVID probably for the rest of our lives," he said.

Balcezak predicts there will probably be an annual booster for COVID-19, likely in the fall, similarly to the yearly flu vaccine.

Featured Image Photo Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images