CORRECTION: Penn State University released a statement late Thursday
explaining that the number of COVID-19-infected Big Ten football players with myocarditis is less than what Dr. Wayne Sebastianelli described at the State College School Board of Directors meeting Monday . This story has been updated to include a statement from the university.
The leading doctor in a Big Ten athletic department has just added another coal to the ever-stoking fire that is football in the fall during the pandemic.
According to the Centre Daily Times, Wayne Sebastianelli, the Penn State director of athletic medicine, spoke Monday at the State College School Board of Directors meeting. Sebastianelli said cardiac MRI scans of Big Ten athletes who have tested positive for COVID-19 showed around a third of them had symptoms of myocarditis.
Myocarditis is an inflammation of the heart muscle that can cause sudden death.
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“When we looked at our COVID-positive athletes – whether they were symptomatic or not – 30 to roughly 35% of their heart muscles (are) inflamed,” Sebastianelli said, according to the Centre Daily Times. “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.”
In a statement tweeted out by an ESPN reporter, Penn State officials say the number Sebstianelli referenced was secondhand knowledge and not the final finding of the study. The university and doctor apologized for “any confusion.”
According to ESPN on Aug. 10, myocarditis was found in at least five Big Ten athletes. CBS Sports reported the next day that at least 15 Big Ten athletes have myocarditis after contracting COVID-19.
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Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren on Aug. 11 announced the league would postpone all fall sports, including football, because “there are too many uncertainty regarding potential medical risks.”
And that uncertainty continues to hover over the debate about whether the Big Ten should play. Even doctors seem to be at opposite ends of the argument.
But, as Sebastianelli said Monday, that uncertainty has many decision-makers, at least in the Big Ten, scratching their heads.
“You could have a very high-level athlete who’s got a very superior VO2 max (or rate of oxygen consumption during intensifying workouts) 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 said, according to the Centre Daily Times. “We don’t know that. We don’t know how long that’s going to last. What we have seen is 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.”
In a follow-up, Sebastianelli told the Centre Daily Times he has not had direct conversations with the Penn State president or athletic director on this topic. Penn State was reportedly one of the 11 schools to vote to not play football this fall.