LINCOLN — The doctor for Penn State’s football team said this week that 30-35% of Big Ten athletes who tested positive for COVID-19 and also underwent a cardiac MRI were shown to have an inflamed heart muscle.
Dr. Wayne Sebastianelli, who is director of athletic medicine for Penn State, revealed those comments Monday during a four-hour Zoom meeting for the State College Area Board of School Directors. The Centre Daily Times first reported the comments Thursday.
Sebastianelli did not say how many of the coronavirus-positive athletes received a cardiac MRI, so it’s not clear how many Big Ten athletes were affected. Nor did Sebastianelli say where he got the percentage data.
“When we looked at our COVID-positive athletes, whether they were symptomatic or not, 30 to roughly 35 percent of their heart muscles (were) inflamed,” Sebastianelli said. “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.”
Later on Thursday, in a statement to ESPN, Penn State said that Sebastianelli “had recalled preliminary data that had been verbally shared by a colleague on a forthcoming study, which unbeknownst to him at the time had been published at a lower rate.”
The Big Ten’s original Aug. 11 rationale for postponing the fall football season related to “uncertainty” surrounding medical questions. On Aug. 19, Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren wrote in a letter “while the data on cardiomyopathy is preliminary and incomplete, the uncertain risk was unacceptable at this time.”
Myocarditis — an inflammation of the heart muscle — can happen after a viral infection. Sebastianelli said during the Zoom meeting that he didn’t know the incidence level of myocarditis after other viral infections like the flu.
Later in the call, Sebastianelli said there is a test for a heart enzyme, troponin, that detects heart damage.
“There have been multiple athletes with elevated troponin levels,” Sebastianelli said. “Which would indicate their heart was really significantly and critically inflamed. You don’t make that up. That’s not something you can make up. Most of the time that troponin level has normalized very quickly, within a week or two. And in some instances it’s remained elevated for a longer period of time.”