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Penn State Football

Penn State athletics doctor cautions about COVID-related heart disease


CORRECTION: Penn State Health later clarified that the 30-35% figure pertaining to COVID-19-positive Big Ten athletes verbally shared with Dr. Wayne Sebastianelli by a colleague was actually published at the lower rate of 15%. He was unaware of that when he made his comments at the State College school board meeting, a spokesperson said.

Corrected Sep 3, 2020

New data helps illustrate what Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren might have meant when he described “too much medical uncertainty and too many unknown health risks” as reasons for postponing the Big Ten’s 2020-21 fall sports season.

During a State College Area school board of directors meeting on Monday night, Wayne Sebastianelli — Penn State’s director of athletic medicine — made some alarming comments about the link between COVID-19 and myocarditis, particularly in Big Ten athletes. Sebastianelli said that cardiac MRI scans revealed that approximately a third of Big Ten athletes who tested positive for COVID-19 appeared to have myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle that can be fatal if left unchecked.

“And we really just don’t know what to do with it right now,” he said.

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A day before the Big Ten announced its decision to postpone its fall sports season on Aug. 11, ESPN reported that the long-term effects of myocarditis had been discussed in meetings of presidents and chancellors, commissioners and athletic directors, and health advisory board members from the Big Ten and other conferences around the country.

“You could have a very high-level athlete who’s got a very superior VO2 max 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 <FZ,1,0,35>make them go from elite status to average status,” Sebastianelli said. “What we have seen 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.”

Neither Penn State nor the Big Ten responded to requests for comment.

“I have had no direct conversation with (Penn State) President (Eric) Barron on this topic,” Sebastianelli told the CDT in an email, “but needless to say we all have concerns for the health and safety of every PSU student-athlete, as well as those at every level of competition; this is a public health issue.”

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