WITH the first cases of the newest Omicron strain confirmed in Los Angeles County, residents are being asked to be aware of possible new COVID-19 symptoms and take precautions.
The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (Public Health) has confirmed three reported cases of the new XBB.1.16 strain, also known as “Arcturus.”
However, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) predicts that XBB.1.16 currently accounts for 8% of COVID-19 cases in California and 10% nationally.
Local reporting is delayed due to the time it takes for samples to be sequenced after reported to Public Health. The CDC has advanced models that predict the levels at which each strain is currently circulating.
Symptoms include conjunctivitis, more commonly known as “pink eye,” along with previously known signs of COVID.
Observational data suggests that people infected with XBB.1.16 may be more likely to experience conjunctivitis as a symptom of their COVID infection, along with more traditional COVID symptoms, such as fever, cough and shortness of breath. Conjunctivitis can be painful and itchy, highly contagious and, if left untreated, can cause damage to the cornea. Historically, conjunctivitis was reported in 1-3% of COVID-19 cases.
Given limited data, it is too early to know with certainty if XBB.1.16 is truly associated with higher rates of conjunctivitis, amid an already active allergy season in Southern California. However, residents should be aware that itchy, watery or red eyes may be a sign of a COVID-19 infection and these symptoms should not be simply dismissed as a result of pollen or seasonal allergies, especially if someone more vulnerable to severe illness could be exposed. At-home COVID-19 testing is an important tool to use to rule out possible COVID-19. And because untreated conjunctivitis can cause eye damage, those who suspect conjunctivitis should speak with their health care provider.
Free COVID-19 at-home tests can still be picked up at libraries and community sites across Los Angeles County and at Public Health vaccination sites or ordered through the federal government. Additionally, insurance policies are still required to reimburse each member for up to eight COVID-19 tests per month. Information is available at ph.lacounty.gov/COVIDtests.
Because XBB.1.16 is a descendant of the Omicron variant, current vaccines and therapeutics are highly likely to remain protective and able to ward off severe illness. The fact that we are seeing new strains, with possibly new and different symptoms, tells us that COVID continues to evolve and the way we think about our protections should reflect what we know.
As XBB.1.16 has a mutation that results in greater potential for infection, older adults and individuals with underlying health conditions may want to take extra precautions to avoid infection, including making sure they have received a bivalent booster, frequent hand washing, avoiding touching their eyes and face, staying home when sick and testing. Those at higher risk of severe illness may also want to consider masking in crowded places.
Public Health is offering bivalent vaccines and boosters to eligible residents at no cost, regardless of their insurance or immigration status, at hundreds of locations throughout Los Angeles County. Vaccination locations and appointments can be found at VaccinateLACounty.com or VacunateLosAngeles.com (en español) or by calling 1-833-540-0473.
For residents who have difficulties leaving their home, Public Health offers free in-home COVID-19 vaccine and booster appointments. Appointments may be booked at ph.lacounty.gov/vaxathome or by calling the Public Health COVID-19 Call Center at 1-833-540-0473.
“To those who have lost a loved one to COVID-19, I extend my heartfelt sympathies. May their memories bring you comfort,” said Dr. Barbara Ferrer, Ph.D., M.P.H., M.Ed., Director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. “Los Angeles County remains in a strong position to reduce risks associated with this virus. Although we are facing the reality of a new Omicron strain gaining dominance and it is not yet possible to predict the impact, I am confident that the tools available to us, including vaccines, therapeutics and testing, can limit bad outcomes. Because this new Omicron strain is still COVID, we know what works and what common-sense precautions make a difference. Public Health will continue to provide resources and updated information so that the knowledge we have can inform decisions that maximize our protections.”
Los Angeles County remains in the CDC’s Low COVID-19 Community Level for the 15th consecutive week. This includes a weekly reported case rate of 26 new cases per 100,000 people. The 7-day total for new COVID-19 hospital admissions per 100,000 people is currently 2.9. And the 7-day average of the proportion of staffed inpatient beds occupied by COVID-19 patients is now 1.6%.
As of Tuesday, April 25, there have been a total of 36,199 deaths in Los Angeles County. (AJPress)