The sickest all had red eyes, says nurse on front lines of coronavirus pandemic
A telltale sign of COVID-19?

By Mike Moffitt, SFGATE

Updated

  • Red skin around the eyes might be a sign of COVID-19, according to a nurse who treated patients during the coronavirus outbreak at the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Wash., in February-March 2020. Photo: Heidijpix/Getty Images / Heidi van der Westhui

    Red skin around the eyes might be a sign of COVID-19, according to a nurse who treated patients during the coronavirus outbreak at the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Wash., in February-March 2020.

    Red skin around the eyes might be a sign of COVID-19, according to a nurse who treated patients during the coronavirus outbreak at the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Wash., in February-March 2020.

    Photo: Heidijpix/Getty Images

Photo: Heidijpix/Getty Images

Red skin around the eyes might be a sign of COVID-19, according to a nurse who treated patients during the coronavirus outbreak at the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Wash., in February-March 2020.

Red skin around the eyes might be a sign of COVID-19, according to a nurse who treated patients during the coronavirus outbreak at the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Wash., in February-March 2020.

Photo: Heidijpix/Getty Images

A veteran registered nurse who treated COVID-19 patients in Washington state said the sickest all seemed to have one thing in common — redness around the eyes.

“It’s something that I witnessed in all of them. They have, like … allergy eyes. The white part of the eye is not red. It’s more like they have red eye shadow on the outside of their eyes,” Chelsey Earnest told CNN on Monday.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently does list conjunctivitis or eye redness as a symptom of COVID-19.

Earnest was working at the Life Care Center in Kirkland in late February when the novel coronavirus rampaged through the nursing home in the early stages of the pandemic. At least 37 deaths are linked to the COVID-19 outbreak there. The average age of the deceased was 80.

The American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) on Tuesday updated an alert warning that, based on several reports, SARS-CoV-2 may cause a “mild follicular conjunctivitis otherwise indistinguishable from other viral causes, and possibly be transmitted by aerosol contact with conjunctiva.”

Conjunctivitis, also known as pinkeye, is an inflammation of the conjunctiva, the mucous membrane that covers the front of the eye and lines the inside of the eyelids. It also can cause the skin around the eyes to become itchy and redden.

The AAO advised ophthalmologists with patients who exhibit symptoms of conjunctivitis, shortness of breath, fever and cough to wear protective equipment including covering their mouth, nose and eyes.

Earnest said at the Life Care Center, red eyes became the most reliable sign that a patient had contracted the disease.

“I’ve even had the disaster medical control physician say, ‘Do they have the red eyes?’ And I will say yes. And he’ll say, ‘I’ll find you a bed.’ It’s just something about this, the way that it affects these patients,” she said in the CNN interview.

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Mike Moffitt is an SFGATE Digital Reporter. Email: moffitt@sfgate.com. Twitter: @Mike_at_SFGate

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