For sports fans across the country, the resumption of the regular sports calendar has signaled another step toward post-pandemic normality. But for the athletes participating in professional, collegiate, high school or even recreational sports, significant unanswered questions remain about the aftereffects of a COVID-19 infection.
Chief among those is whether the coronavirus can damage their hearts, putting them at risk for lifelong complications and death. Preliminary data from early in the pandemic suggested that as many as 1 in 5 people with COVID-19 could end up with heart inflammation, known as myocarditis, which has been linked to abnormal heart rhythms and sudden cardiac death.
Screening studies conducted by college athletic programs over the past year have generally found lower numbers. But these studies have been too small to provide an accurate measure of how likely athletes are to develop heart problems after COVID-19, and how serious those heart issues may be.
Without definitive data, concerns arose that returning to play too soon could expose thousands of athletes to serious cardiac complications. On the other hand, if concerns proved overblown, the testing protocols could unfairly keep athletes out of competition and subject them to needless testing and treatment.
“The last thing we want is to miss people that we potentially could have detected, and have that result in bad outcomes — in particular, the sudden death of a young athlete,” said Dr. Matthew Martinez, director of sports cardiology at Atlantic Health’s Morristown Medical Center in New Jersey and an adviser to several professional sports leagues. “But we also need to look at the flip side and the potential negatives of overtesting.”
With millions of Americans playing high school, college, professional or master’s level sports, even a low rate of complications could result in significant numbers of affected athletes. And that could prompt a thorny discussion of how to balance the risk of a small percentage of players who could be in danger against the continuation of sports competition as we know it.