Do NCAA Basketball Players Have COVID-19 Related Cardiovascular Risks

NBA player screening found few COVID-19-associated cardiac injuries
college basketball game about to start
Indianapolis (Precision Vaccinations)

As the women and mens’ NCAA basketball tournaments launch this week, do the players have substantial cardiovascular risks from COVID-19?

As of early on March 17, 2021, seven positive COVID-19 cases have been identified out of more than 6,900 completed tests for Tier 1, 2, and 3 individuals at the Division I Men’s Basketball Championship.

NCAA Senior Vice President of Basketball Dan Gavitt said in a press statement the testing numbers are equal to a positivity rate of about 0.1%, lower than local and national rates.

“Of course, that risk mitigation and that daily testing continue here in the controlled environment, and we’re hopeful that the success of keeping everybody healthy and safe will continue.”

If the NBA’s recent heart-health data is analogous, these college athletes’ cardiology risks may be minimal.

On March 4, 2021, a study led by Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons in collaboration with North American sports leagues and their respective players' associations was published in JAMA Cardiology.

The study included data from 789 professional athletes across the professional leagues screened for post-COVID-19 cardiac inflammation. 

None had severe COVID-19 symptoms, and approximately 40% had very mild or no symptoms.

Abnormal cardiac screening results raising concern for potential COVID-19-associated cardiac injury were found in 30 (3.8%) athletes. 

Further assessments with diagnostic cardiac MRI and cardiac stress tests ultimately found heart inflammation in only five athletes (0.6%).

Previous studies suggest that approximately 20% of patients hospitalized with severe COVID-19 develop some heart damage, but the impact of mild or asymptomatic infections on the heart is not known.

"Athletes have a unique risk because of demands on the heart from strenuous exercise, which can increase the risk of abnormal heart rhythms in those with underlying inflammatory heart disease," stated David Engel, M.D., associate professor of medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and senior author of this paper. 

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, isolated reports of college and professional athletes who developed heart inflammation were widely publicized, causing alarm among medical professionals, sports leagues, and universities. 

In the spring of 2020, the American College of Cardiology (ACC) Sports and Exercise Cardiology section recommended that competitive athletes who test positive for SARS-CoV-2 undergo screening for inflammatory heart disease before returning to the field, court, or ice. 

The ACC recommendations called for a specific screening protocol with blood tests, electrocardiography, and echocardiography. The guidelines were adopted and implemented across all major sports leagues, including Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, and men's and women's National Basketball Associations. 

"While all of the major professional leagues had implemented COVID-19 testing programs and the ACC screening protocol, there was no data on how prevalent heart inflammation may be among athletes who tested positive for the coronavirus or how effective the screening program would be to allow athletes to safely return to sport after COVID-19," Dr. Engel commented. 

"The leagues realized that if they pooled their screening data, we would soon have an answer."

None of the athletes with inflammatory heart disease had a history of heart disease, and all were restricted from athletic activities following ACC guidelines.

Viral infections can cause inflammatory heart disease. The condition can trigger abnormal heart rhythms and accounts for approximately 5% of cases of sudden cardiac death in athletes. 

"Our study shows that it is rare for professional athletes with mild COVID-19 to develop heart inflammation, but the risk is not zero," added Engel. 

"These findings give college and other athletic organizations some clinically relevant context to help them optimize their return-to-play screening protocols with a measure of confidence."

Unfortunately, the UConn Women’s Basketball team may be without their Hall-of-Fame Coach when the team takes the floor in San Antonio, Texas.

UConn announced coach Geno Auriemma tested positive for COVID-19 on March 13th and is now isolating at his home. 

Auriemma had received a second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on March 10th. Most COVID-19 vaccine efficacy is maximized after fourteen days after the second dose.

The UConn program underwent contact tracing protocols and determined that Auriemma did not have close contact with any other team member since March 12. All other Tier 1 personnel within the program have turned in negative tests for COVID-19 since daily testing ahead of the tournament per NCAA protocols.

"I'm feeling well but disappointed that I will be away from the team for the next several days," Auriemma commented in a UConn statement.

PrecisionVaccinations publishes research-based news. 

Note: This article was edited for clarity on March 19, 2021.

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