New Reports Guide Return to Play in Athletes With COVID-19

Fran Lowry

November 12, 2020

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

Increasingly, clinicians are being called upon to advise athletes who have recovered from COVID-19 on when it is safe for them to return to play.

Now, they have two reports that offer more insights into the cardiotoxic effects of COVID-19 on the athletic heart.

In the first report, researchers report a high prevalence of pericardial involvement in college-student athletes who have recovered from COVID-19 and give their practical advice on how to let these athletes return to play safely.

In the second report, an expert panel of sports cardiologists provides a comprehensive guide to the appropriate imaging of athletes who may have cardiovascular complications from COVID-19.

Both are published in JACC: Cardiovascular Imaging.

"We were asked by the editors of JACC to submit this paper, and the impetus for it was the fact that there are so many athletes returning after being infected with COVID-19, we need to try and give guidance to cardiologists as to how best to evaluate these athletes," Dermot Phelan, MD, PhD, Sanger Heart and Vascular Institute, Atrium Health, Charlotte, North Carolina, and lead author of the consensus statement, told theheart.org | Medscape Cardiology.

The consensus statement acknowledges that information about the cardiovascular complications of COVID-19 continues to evolve. Meanwhile, pathologies such as myocarditis, pericarditis, and right ventricular dysfunction, in the absence of significant clinical symptoms, in athletes who have been affected by COVID-19 remain of considerable concern.

It also emphasizes the unique challenges the average cardiologist faces in distinguishing between what is normal for an athlete's heart and what is true pathology after COVID-19 infection; details how different imaging modalities can help in screening, evaluating, and monitoring athletes with suspected cardiovascular complications of COVID-19 infection; and discusses the strengths and limitations of these modalities.

Finally, the consensus statement provides some well-needed guidance on return-to-play decision-making, for both the athlete and the clinician.

Athletic Remodeling or COVID-19 Damage?

Athletes can develop certain cardiovascular characteristics because of their athletic activity, and sometimes, this can cloud the diagnostic picture.

"Is this change due to the effects of COVID-19, or is it just because this is an athlete's heart? This was an international expert consensus, made up of sports cardiologists from all over the world who have a lot of experience in dealing with athletes," Phelan said. "We were trying to relay the important information to the cardiologist who is not used to dealing with athletes on a day-to-day basis, as to what they might expect to find in that athlete, and what is not an expected finding and should be tested further."

Phelan, a sports cardiologist, is familiar with what is normal for an athlete's heart and what is pathology.

"We know that athletes, particularly long-term endurance athletes, develop changes in the heart that can affect not only the electrics but the structure of the heart, and sometimes, that overlaps with abnormalities with pathology. This can be a challenge for the nonsports cardiologist to differentiate," he said.

Phelan and his group have written two other consensus documents on the management of cardiovascular problems that develop in some athletes who have been infected with COVID-19.

The first was published in May in JAMA Cardiology, and the second, which revised some of the original recommendations made in the first document, was published online October 26 in JAMA Cardiology, as reported by theheart.org \ Medscape Cardiology.

The first set of recommendations called for imaging studies to be done in all athletes, but the second set states that athletes who recover and are asymptomatic do not need extensive (and expensive) imaging tests.

"These two papers work hand in hand," Phelan said. "In May, we had very little experience with COVID, and there was a lot of concern about hospitalized patients having a very high incidence of heart disease. We published those recommendations, but we recognized at the time that we had very little data and that we would reconsider once we had more experience with data.

"This current set of recommendations that we have put forth here are for those athletes who do need to get further testing, so it's a step beyond," Phelan added. "So the second iteration states that young athletes who had mild or no symptoms didn't need to go through all of that cardiac testing, but others do need it."

To do widespread cardiovascular imaging for many individuals would be very costly. Realistically, there are not that many centers in the United States that have all the sophisticated equipment required to do such testing, Phelan noted.

"One of our major points is difficulty obtaining the test, but also the cost; these are very expensive tests. There are limitations. They are useful when used in the correct context," he said.

To Play or Not to Play, That Is the Question

Partho P. Sengupta, MD, DM, had to answer that question for more than 50 young athletes who were returning to college at West Virginia University, anxious to be back with their teams and on the playing field. They had been infected with COVID-19 and needed to know when they could return to play.

Sengupta, who is also an author for the Phelan et al consensus statement on imaging, said there was a lot of pressure — from all the various stakeholders, and from anxious parents, worried college athletes, their teammates, and the university — to determine if the youngsters could return to play.

The fear was that COVID-19 infection left the young athlete's heart vulnerable to myocarditis and, thus, sudden death on the playing field after strenuous activity.

"At the time we were doing this imaging, there was a lot of concern in the media, and papers were coming out reporting a lot of cardiac involvement or myocarditis associated with COVID-19. Nobody really knew what to do," he explained.

"There were all kinds of questions, concerns. The parents were putting pressure on us, the athletes wanted to know, the teams, the university. So we put together a team and completed all of the examinations, including testing of blood markers, within a 2-week period. These young athletes, they're scared, they're worried and anxious, they don't know what's going to happen with their scholarship, so there was some urgency to this work," Sengupta said.

"We had to screen all comers within a very short period. We had 54 consecutive patients, gave them full screening, full battery of tests, blood tests, all in a 2-week period," he said.

Speed was of the essence, and Sengupta and his team rolled up their sleeves and got to work, he said. "We had to know who was safe to clear to return to play and who might need extra follow-up."

Screening Echocardiograms

They performed screening echocardiograms on 54 consecutive college athletes who had tested positive for COVID-19 on reverse transcription PCR nasal swab testing or who showed that they had IgG antibodies against COVID-19. The screening echocardiograms were done after the athletes had quarantined for at least 14 days and were no longer infectious.

Most (85%) were male, and the mean age was 19 years. A total of 16 (30%) athletes were asymptomatic, 36 (66%) reported mild COVID-19 related symptoms, and two (4%) reported moderate symptoms.

Of the 54 athletes who were initially screened with echocardiography, 48 (11 asymptomatic, 37 symptomatic), went on to have cardiac magnetic resonance imaging.

Results showed that more than half the athletes (27; 56.3%), showed some cardiac abnormality. The most common was pericardial late enhancement with associated pericardial effusion, affecting 19 (39.5%) athletes.

Of these, six (12.5%) had reduced global longitudinal strain (GLS) or an increased native T1.

One patient showed myocardial enhancement.

Additionally, seven athletes (14.6%) had reduced left ventricular ejection fraction or reduced GLS with or without increased native T1. Native T2 levels were normal in all subjects and no specific imaging features of myocardial inflammation were identified.

Participants were brought back to receive the results of their tests and to get an individualized plan about their safe return to play 3 to 5 weeks after they had ceased to be infectious with COVID-19.

"We saw pericardial inflammation that was resolving. We did not see any blood biomarkers to suggest that there was active inflammation going on," he said. "We also did not see any muscle inflammation, but we did see pockets of fluid in over a third of our athletes."

Fortunately, most were deemed able to get back to playing safely, despite having evidence of pericardial inflammation.

This was on strict condition that they be monitored very closely for any adverse events that might occur as they began to exercise again.

"Once they go back to the field to start exercising and practicing, it is under great supervision. We instructed all of our sports physicians and other team managers that these people need to be observed very carefully. So as long as they were asymptomatic, even though the signs of pericardial inflammation were there, if there were no signs of inflammation in the blood, we let them go back to play, closely monitored," Sengupta said.

A small number remained very symptomatic at the end of the 5 weeks and were referred to cardiac rehabilitation, Sengupta said. "They were tired, fatigued, short of breath, even 5 weeks after they got over COVID, so we sent them for cardiac rehab to help them get conditioned again."

The researchers plan to re-evaluate and reimage all of the athletes in another 3 months to monitor their cardiac health.

Sengupta acknowledged the limitations of this single-center, nonrandomized controlled report, but insists reports such as this add a bit more to what we are learning about COVID-19 every day.

"These kids were coming to us and asking questions. You have to use the best science you have available to you at that point in time. Some people ask why we did not have a control group, but how do you design a control population in the midst of a pandemic? The science may or may not be perfect, I agree, but the information we obtained is important," he said.

"Right now, I don't think we have enough science, and we are still learning. It is very difficult to predict who will develop the heart muscle disease or the pericardial disease," Sengupta said. "We had to do our work quickly to give answers to the young athletes, their parents, their teammates, their university, as soon as possible, and we were doing this under pandemic conditions."

The work was supported by the National Science Foundation National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health. Phelan reports no relevant financial relationships. Sengupta reports that he is a consultant for HeartSciences, Kencor Health, and Ultromics.

JACC Cardiovasc Imaging. Published online November 4, 2020. Full text

JACC Cardiovasc Imaging. Published online October 30, 2020. Full text

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