Anna Bauer ’23
Of the 789 professional athletes who were infected with COVID-19, five were found to suffer from inflammatory heart disease (0.6% of total number of athletes). This study conducted is the largest of its kind examining the impact of the virus in sports; many doctors who were associated with six U.S.-based leagues followed the players between May and October of 2020.
Just as Trinity’s student athletes who historically had COVID-19 had to have an EKG and potentially get cleared by a cardiologist, professional athletes underwent a similar and very thorough examination. Athletes took three noninvasive tests which (1) tracked the rhythms of their hearts, (2) an ultrasound of their hearts, and (3) calculated how much of a specific protein, that is usually a sign of damage to the heart, was in their bloodstream.
Of the 789 athletes, thirty were found to have abnormal test results and were sent for a cardiac MRI. From this group of thirty, five were found to possess inflammatory heart disease; two had pericarditis and the remaining three were told to have myocarditis.
Ultimately, Dr. David Engel who is a cardiologist at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center came to the conclusion that the athletes’ results followed the general assessment that the more severe one’s symptoms of COVID-19 were, the more at risk one is for cardiac injury. All five athletes who were diagnosed with inflammatory heart disease are told to have had symptoms beyond mild.
While myocarditis is the inflammation of the heart muscle, pericarditis is the inflammation of the pericardium which is tissue that surrounds the heart, holds it in place, and helps it work. If left undiagnosed and untreated, both could lead to some form of heart damage and could be fatal.
Due to the great concern about how these heart ailments could affect the players, there was a lot of initial debate about if sports games should even continue during the pandemic. As a result, for the safety of their athletes, many of the professional sports leagues, including NFL, NBA, WNBA, NHL, Major League Soccer, and Major League Baseball, participated in this study determining the effects of COVID-19. All sports teams involved in any of these leagues had athletes who had tested positive undergo a recommended screening, including an electrocardiogram, blood tests, and a resting echocardiogram.
Further testing only was necessary when abnormalities were seen in initial testing. Thankfully, the numbers of those suffering from inflammatory heart disease were rather low and, though not named for the purpose of this study, were told to spend three to six months not playing their sport. Testing for them will continue to see if even longer-term effects on their physical condition become visible or to see if their heart conditions instead lessen in severity.
Moving forward, it was suggested by the American College of Cardiology that athletes who either had mild or completely asymptomatic cases of COVID-19 be eliminated from the screening process. Meanwhile, athletes with either severe or moderate symptoms were still recommended to go through the same screening process.
Ultimately, not only are the results of this study relatively great news for athletes who had COVID-19, but many sports leagues have been able to achieve a rather safe return to play!