As a new, highly transmissible COVID variant has arrived in the US, Tulane University epidemiologist Susan Hassig, DrPH, says the country—and the Southern states in particular—may be in for a “summer surge.” 

As of April 15, the Arcturus variant, officially named XBB.1.6, comprised 7.2% of all US COVID cases, an increase from 3.9% a week prior. Arcturus gained global attention after causing a spike in cases in India. 

“The summer could be problematic, especially in the South where people spend a lot more time indoors,” says Hassig in a release. “As this variant takes over, and it undoubtedly will as all of the more transmissible variants have, it’s going to be peaking in a couple of months, June, July.”

So far, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Region 6—comprised of Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arkansas, and Louisiana—has seen the largest spread of Arcturus cases with the variant making up 21.3% of COVID cases.

The spread of Arcturus comes one month before the expiration of the Public Health Emergency declared by the federal government during the initial COVID-19 pandemic. With public testing efforts already reduced, Hassig says, “We may not recognize (a surge) as quickly as we might have historically because we’re not testing the way we used to.”

Little is known about Arcturus thus far besides it being another highly transmissible variant, according to a release from Tulane University. There have been reports of conjunctivitis associated with positive cases, with some having itchy, sticky eyes.

“It is not unusual that, as organisms mutate, they present some slightly different symptomology, but the challenge is there are a lot of things that cause conjunctivitis,” says Hassig in the release. “Oak pollen and allergies can result in red, itchy eyes. A whole number of bacterial organisms, many common in India, are also associated with conjunctivitis. But a new symptom wouldn’t be that surprising. These things take a lot of time to evaluate and fully understand.”

With testing down and vaccine rates unlikely to change dramatically, Hassig says it’s important for people to take safety protocols into their own hands to avoid infecting anyone, particularly those who are immune-compromised or have pre-existing conditions.

“Wear masks indoors, use rapid testing before seeing an older family member. We still need to be paying attention,” says Hassig in the release. “We’re still losing what will ultimately be 100,000 people a year to a totally preventable disease, a really unacceptable level of impact in my mind. So be aware of who you’re interacting with, and if you’re healthy, don’t potentially put people in your circle at risk by your own actions.”