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Penn State Team Doctor Says One-Third of Big Ten Athletes Who Tested Positive for COVID-19 Had Myocarditis

by on September 03, 2020 1:30 PM

Penn State released a statement Thursday night to clarify these comments.

The long term impacts of COVID-19 continue to concern health administrators as new information becomes available and the college football season — for at least part of the country — closes in.

Penn State’s director of athletic medicine Wayne Sebastianelli noted to the State College Area School Board during a Monday night work session that myocarditis, a heart condition found in COVID-19 patients, was showing up at a relatively high rate among Big Ten athletes who had contracted the virus.

“When we looked at our COVID-positive athletes, whether they were symptomatic or not, 30 to roughly 35 percent of their heart muscles [are] inflamed,” Sebastianelli said. “And we really just don’t know what to do with it right now. It’s still very early in the infection. Some of that has led to the Pac-12 and the Big Ten’s decision to sort of put a hiatus on what’s happening.”

While the Big Ten office and university presidents have largely avoided specifics regarding the collective decision to cancel the upcoming fall sports season, general health concerns — including myocarditis — have long been among the overarching reasons for cancelation. An ESPN report in the lead up to the Big Ten's announcement cited myocarditis as a leading factor in the decision.

“You could have a very high-level athlete who’s got a very superior VO2 max (the maximum oxygen uptake during intense exercise) and cardiac output who gets infected with COVID and can drop his or her VO2 max and cardiac output just by 10 percent, and that could make them go from elite status to average status,” Sebastianelli added. “We don’t know that. We don’t know how long that’s going to last. What we have seen when people have been studied with cardiac MRI scans — symptomatic and asymptomatic COVID infections — is a level of inflammation in cardiac muscle that just is alarming."

He noted that "we don't really understand fully by any means" the effect of the virus on the cardiac system "in a longitudinal way."

"You could argue with cardiologists [and] they’ll say we don’t know if that increases their risk for cardiac arrhythmia or cardiac status long-term. We don’t really understand fully what it would look like if it was a Coxsackievirus or if you studied influenza virus with cardiac MRI scans. We don’t know what the incidence of that inflammation really would be...It’s still very early in the infection. Some of that has led the Pac-12 and the Big Ten’s decision to sort of put a hiatus on what’s happening because we really want to study this further and figure out what’s going on with the student-athletes."

Since the outset of its COVID-19 reporting, Penn State athletics has publicly announced just 11 positives out of about 1,200 tests. Athletes in high-contact sports are tested multiple times a week as per Big Ten guidelines.

On Wednesday, Centre County reported 47 new COVID-19 cases, a record high since the outset of the pandemic.

Penn State football took the field for practice on Wednesday for the first time since the cancelation announcement. While Penn State has not indicated which teams have had to deal with COVID-19 positives, Penn State coach James Franklin noted during an earlier media session this summer that football had yet to report a positive case.

The NCAA ruled that Big Ten schools, and other conferences that have canceled their upcoming seasons, are permitted 12 hours of work per week.



Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for StateCollege.com. He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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