Oct. 8, 2020 -- Vice President Mike Pence’s left eye appeared red during Wednesday night’s vice presidential debate, leading internet users to guess that Pence has pinkeye -- a known symptom of COVID-19.

During the debate with Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris, Pence’s eye definitely appeared red. While the campaign and his office have not commented on his condition, it didn’t stop others from suggesting the vice president had pinkeye, officially known as conjunctivitis.

Together with a pesky fly that landed on Pence’s head, it made for provocative chatter.

“He had a bloody eye and a fly on his head,” Anderson Cooper said on CNN.

Pinkeye has long been known as a possible symptom of the coronavirus. The possibility that Pence has pinkeye is then more significant given the coronavirus outbreak now hitting the White House. President Donald Trump and many others have tested positive for the virus, and while Pence says he has thus far tested negative, experts said this week that the vice president should be in quarantine and not taking part in campaign events or Wednesday’s debate. Pence later canceled a planned trip from Arizona to his home state of Indiana and returned to Washington instead. His office said the trip would be rescheduled and said there was no health reason for the change. 

There are also plenty of other explanations for eye redness. Politico reported late Thursday that White House doctors cleared Pence of having pinkeye and said it was likely a broken blood vessel. 

Pinkeye is typically caused by a bacterial or viral infection, or from allergies. Babies also get it from an a tear duct that isn't completely opened. 

Nearly a quarter of pediatric COVID patients had pinkeye from Jan. 26 through March 18, according to a study published in JAMA Ophthalmology on Aug. 26. A second study published in the same journal the next day detailed two adults with COVID and conjunctivitis. One was a 29-year-old male and the other a 51-year-old woman.

In June, researchers at the University of Alberta in Canada examined a case of a 29-year-old woman with COVID and conjunctivitis. Scientists there found that pinkeye is a secondary symptom of COVID in 10% to 15% of cases.

A study from China, published in late March, found 12 of 38 patients with COVID-19 also had pinkeye.

The more severe a patient's COVID-19 is, the more likely it is that they will also have pinkeye, according to the report published online March 31 in JAMA Ophthalmology.

Alfred Sommer, MD, a professor of epidemiology and international health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, wrote an editorial that accompanied the study.

"This is a warning to people that the conjunctiva can be a source of infection that might spread to others," he said.

HealthDay contributed to this report.

Show Sources

JAMA Ophthalmology: “Documenting Course of 2 Cases of Conjunctivitis in Mobile Hospitals During the Coronavirus Disease 2019 Pandemic,” “Ocular Manifestations and Clinical Characteristics of Children With Laboratory-Confirmed COVID-19 in Wuhan, China.”

University of Alberta: “U of A clinician-scientists identify pink eye as possible primary symptom of COVID-19.”

Twitter: @atrupar, Oct. 7, 2020.

HealthDay: “'Pink Eye' Often a Symptom of COVID-19, and Infection Via Tears Possible.”

Mayo Clinic, "Pink eye (conjunctivitis)

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