Penn State athletic doctor clarifies myocarditis comments, issues apology for causing 'confusion'

Wayne Sebastianelli, Penn State’s director of athletic medicine, said that around one-third of Big Ten athletes that tested positive for COVID-19 may have myocarditis. He delivered the information during a State College Area Board of School Directors meeting on Monday that was reported on by the Centre Daily Times.

Sebastianelli called the level of inflammation in the studies “alarming” on Monday, but issued a statement Thursday via Penn State in an effort to clarify his comments and apologize for any confusion his comments may have caused.

The statement, issued to ESPN, is below:

“Dr. Sebastianelli was asked by a local school board to discuss high school preparations and precautions for holding sporting events during the pandemic and the potential impact of COVID-19 on the health of student-athletes. During his discussion with board members, he recalled initial 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 research was not conducted by Dr. Sebastianelli or Penn State. Dr. Sebastianelli wishes to clarify this point, and apologize for any confusion.

“Additionally, some have inferred his comments may have been related directly to Penn State student athletes. At this time, there have been no cases of myocarditis in COVID-19 positive student-athletes at Penn State. For questions related to the myocarditis study, please contact the study investigators.”

Penn State doctor gives data on myocarditis

Big Ten logo on the football field.
One-third of student-athletes who tested positive for COVID-19 have inflammation of the heart. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Sebastianelli linked COVID-19 and myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle that reduces the heart’s ability to pump blood and can be fatal if not addressed. It is the third-leading cause of sudden death in young people, per Mayo Clinic cardiologist Dr. Michael Ackerman.

His comments are available on YouTube:

“When we looked at our COVID-positive athletes, whether they were symptomatic or not, 30 to roughly 35 percent of their heart muscles (are) 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.”

Myocarditis was reportedly linked last month to several Big Ten athletes who contracted COVID-19. It can cause cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart muscle.

“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 make them go from elite status to average status,” Sebastianelli said. “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.”

Data underscores Big Ten point on ‘medical uncertainty’

The Big Ten postponed its football season in early August and there were reports that the issue of myocarditis was discussed within the meetings. The only thing the conference provided on the decision at the time was that “there was too much uncertainty regarding potential medical risks to allow our student-athletes to compete this fall.”

A week later, first-year commissioner Kevin Warren penned an open letter to clarify the situation. He wrote it “was thorough and deliberative [decision], and based on sound feedback, guidance and advice from medical experts.”

He pointed to cardiomyopathy in the letter and wrote there was “simply too much we do not know about this virus.”

The data provided by Penn State’s director of athletic medicine puts numbers on those concerns and shows the seriousness of COVID-19’s impacts. The long-term effects are still being studied and discovered.

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