Post-COVID myocarditis screening in athletes is proving ineffective

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The dramatic and terrible cardiac incident that befell Gators basketball star Keyontae Johnson was inescapable for the rest of the season. The long shadow it cast forced the team to consider throwing in the towel altogether on the season. Even after they decided to resume team activities, it was felt in lineup and rotation choices and seemed to be the first and foremost thing on the minds of TV personalities discussing Florida basketball.

The cause of all that trauma? Myocarditis – a potentially lethal form of heart inflammation that leads to improper pumping of the blood. Though many people had never heard of myocarditis a year ago, the ailment received a lot of public attention after Johnson and Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez both experienced acute, life-threatening symptoms. Though not always as severe as in those two cases, myocarditis is no joke.

One way a person can wind up in a battle with this illness is by contracting COVID-19. The full range of long-haul symptoms after surviving an episode with the virus that shut down the globe are not completely understood, but a link between the coronavirus and myocarditis has been established. In Rodriguez’ case in particular appears to have been the direct cause of his cardiac trouble.

However, a recent study on Big Ten athletes who, at one time, tested positive for COVID-19 indicates that standard methods of screening for myocarditis could be missing as many as 85% of cases. Here’s what the Daily Mail UK reported on the study’s findings:

Researchers from 13 schools in the Big Ten athletic conference – led by Ohio State University – performed Cardiovascular magnetic resonance imaging (CMR) on 1,597 student athletes that tested positive for coronavirus.

Screenings determined that 37 athletes had the inflammation, known as myocarditis, with specifically nine student-athletes reporting clinical myocarditis and 28 with subclinical myocarditis. With standard testing based on only cardiac symptoms, only five of the cases would have been detected, meaning using CMR detected nearly eight-fold more cases.

All 28 student-athletes with subclinical myocarditis did not exhibit any symptoms beforehand, and would not have been screened for the condition in normal circumstances. Performing this kind of testing on student athletes is especially important, according to researchers, since the condition is the leading cause of sudden death in athletes.

Clearly, if the results of this study are to be believed, it is incredibly important that the CMR screening described in the study is carried out on all college athletes who suffered from the coronavirus. Johnson got lucky. He recovered to the point that he’s considering playing basketball competitively again. Others are not so lucky.

Only with early detection and diagnosis can terrifying cases like those of Johnson and Rodriguez be avoided. Now that it’s been made clear how to protect athletes from the dangers of undetected myocarditis, the NCAA absolutely must ensure that proper CMR screening is available to any student-athlete who was exposed to the virus.

This isn’t a question of politics. It’s not an exercise in assigning blame to anyone. The NCAA can save lives, and it’s the only right thing to do.

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