When Should Students Resume Sports After a COVID-19 Diagnosis?

Jake Remaly

October 27, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

Many student athletes who test positive for COVID-19 likely can have an uneventful return to their sports after they have rested for 2 weeks in quarantine, doctors suggest.

There are reasons for caution, however, especially when a patient has symptoms that indicate possible cardiac involvement. In these cases, patients should undergo cardiac testing before a physician clears them to return to play, according to guidance from professional associations. Reports of myocarditis in college athletes who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 but were asymptomatic are among the reasons for concern. Myocarditis may increase the risk of sudden death during exercise.

"The thing that you need to keep in mind is that this is not just a respiratory illness," David T. Bernhardt, MD, professor of pediatrics, orthopedics, and rehabilitation at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, said in a presentation at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics, held virtually this year. High school and college athletes have had cardiac, neurologic, hematologic, and renal problems that "can complicate their recovery and their return to sport."

Still, children who test positive for COVID-19 tend to have mild illness and often are asymptomatic. "It is more than likely going to be safe for the majority of the student athletes who are in the elementary and middle school age to return to sport," said Bernhardt. Given that 18-year-old college freshmen have had cardiac complications, there may be reason for more caution with high school students.

Limited Data

The AAP has released interim guidance on returning to sports and recommends that primary care physicians clear all patients with COVID-19 before they resume training. Physicians should screen for cardiac symptoms such as chest pain, shortness of breath, fatigue, palpitations, or syncope.

Those with severe illness should be restricted from exercise and participation for 3-6 months. Primary care physicians, preferably in consultation with pediatric cardiologists, should clear athletes who experience severe illness.

"Most of the recommendations come from the fact that we simply do not know what we do not know with COVID-19," Susannah Briskin, MD, a coauthor of the interim guidance, said in an interview. "We have to be cautious in returning individuals to play and closely monitor them as we learn more about the disease process and its effect on kids."

Patients with severe illness could include those who were hospitalized and experienced hypotension or arrhythmias, required intubation or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) support, had kidney or cardiac failure, or developed multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C), said Briskin, a specialist in pediatric sports medicine at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland.

"The majority of COVID-19 cases will not present like this in kids. We have no idea how common myocarditis is in kids post infection. We do know that, if anyone has chest pain, shortness of breath, excessive fatigue, syncope [passing out], or arrhythmia [feeling of their heart skipping beats], they should undergo further evaluation for myocarditis," Briskin said.

Patients who are asymptomatic or have mild symptoms should rest for 14 days after their positive test. After their infectious period has passed, a doctor should assess for any concerning cardiac symptoms. "Anyone with prolonged fever or moderate symptoms should see their pediatrician and have an EKG performed, at a minimum, prior to return to sports," Briskin said. "Anyone with an abnormal EKG or concerning signs or symptoms should be referred on to pediatric cardiology for a further assessment."

Most patients who Briskin has seen have been asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic. "They have done well with a gradual return to physical activity," she said. "We recommend a gradual return so individuals can be monitored for any signs or symptoms concerning for myocarditis. The far majority of individuals likely have an uneventful return to play."

Mitigating Risk

COVID-19 adds elements of uncertainty and complexity to the usual process of mitigating risk in sports, Bernhardt noted in his lecture. "You are dealing with an infection that we do not know a lot about," he said. "And we are trying to mitigate risk not only for the individual who may or may not have underlying health problems, but you are also trying to mitigate risk for anybody else involved with the sport, including athletic trainers and team physicians, coaches, spectators, custodial staff, people working at a snack shack, and all the other people that can be involved in a typical sporting type of atmosphere."

When patients do return to play after an illness, they should gradually increase the training load to avoid injury. In addition, clinicians should screen for depression and anxiety using tools such as the Four-Item Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-4) when they see patients. "The pandemic has been quite stressful for everybody, including our high school student athletes," Bernhardt said. "Giving everybody a PHQ-4 when they come into clinic right now probably makes sense in terms of the stress levels that all of us are experiencing."

If a patient screens positive, take additional history and refer for more in-depth mental health evaluation and treatment if warranted. Sharing breathing and relaxation exercises, promoting healthy behaviors, and paying attention to unhealthy strategies also may help, Bernhardt suggested.

Ultimately, determining when an athlete with COVID-19 can be medically cleared to return to play may be a challenge. There are limited data on epidemiology and clinical presentations that could help identify cardiac injury related to the disease, Bernhardt said. Guidance from the American College of Cardiology provides a framework for evaluating athletes for return to play, and pediatric cardiologists have discussed how the guidance relates to a pediatric population. Cardiac assessments may include measures of biomarkers such as troponin, B-type natriuretic peptide, and sedimentation rate, along with electrocardiograms, echocardiograms, and cardiac MRI.

Beyond return-to-play decisions, encourage the use of cloth face coverings on the sidelines and away from the playing field, and stress proper quarantining, Briskin added. Too often, she hears about children not quarantining properly. "Individuals with a known exposure should be quarantined in their house – ideally in a separate room from everyone else. ... When they come out of their room, they should wash their hands well and wear a cloth face covering. They should not be eating with other people."

Bernhardt had no relevant disclosures.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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