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UI Athletics Voices Support For Fall Season, Plans To Monitor Players For Heart Issues Linked To COVID

Evidence is building that suggests those who have had even mild or asymptomatic COVID-19 may develop heart damage. Cardiologists are increasingly worried the infections may cause dire complications in athletes. The Big Ten Conference and the University of Iowa will be monitoring student athletes for heart issues related to the virus, after reversing the decision to cancel this season.

“The pandemic is still with us. It’s going to be with us for a while,” said UI Athletics Chair Gary Barta. “It’s serious and we take it that way.”

UI Athletics leaders say they’ve worked with numerous medical officials at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in developing their reopening plan, and have said that “first and foremost” is ensuring the health and safety of their student athletes.

“We have an incredible medical team,” Barta. “I just want to overemphasize how incredibly supportive they’ve been, not only to the athletic department at the University of Iowa but to our community.”

“That’s really what it took, is the medical experts in all 14 of the universities in the Big Ten coming together to give us a path forward,” Barta added.

Still, the prospect of players preparing for a fall season during the coronavirus pandemic is not without risks, for the broader community and for the players themselves.

One potential risk is myocarditis, or heart inflammation, which can result from a swath of different infections, including COVID-19. The condition has long been a concern of competitive athletes and while it often resolves itself, it can also lead to arrhythmias, heart failure and sudden death.

Though studies are limited and questions persist, researchers are rushing to learn more about how common the condition is following COVID-19 and whether it's more prevalent following the coronavirus compared to other infections.

An article published in Jama Cardiology found that of 26 Ohio State University athletes who had recovered from COVID-19, four or 15 percent had developed myocarditis.

Myocarditis can be especially dangerous for competitive athletes, and those who aren’t aware they’re suffering from the condition.

According to the Myocarditis Foundation, approximately 75 athletes between the ages of 13 and 25 die of the condition each year.

ESPN has reported that risks of the condition have been concerning for conference administrators and university leaders. Anecdotal accounts of athletes suffering from post-COVID heart issues have attracted attention.

The Boston Red Sox announced last month that pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez would be sitting out the season, after testing positive for COVID-19 and developing myocarditis.

Also in August, former Florida State University basketball player Michael Ojo collapsed during training and died of an apparent heart attack at the age of 27. He had been reported positive for the virus, and was playing for the team Red Star Belgrade in the Serbian capital.

Under the Big Ten Conference’s reopening plans, all student athletes, coaches and trainers will receive daily antigen tests for the coronavirus. Additionally, players who test positive will receive “comprehensive cardiac testing”, including labs, biomarkers, an ECG, echocardiogram and cardiac MRI.

Players will be monitored by a cardiologist and will not be allowed to return to competition for at least 21 days after their COVID-19 diagnosis.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, UI Head Coach Kirk Ferentz highlighted the efforts to monitor players for heart conditions, but also seemed to downplay the risks.

“There’s risk in everything we do,” Ferentz said. “And if you look at the percentages and all those kinds of things, and based on listening to really smart people, I don’t think it’s top of the list. But it’s certainly not anything you can minimize or just take for granted. And I think that’s certainly why the MRI component was included, the cardiac MRI component.”

Ferentz called the daily testing for players a “game changer” and said the Big Ten’s protocol to monitor for cardiac complications “errs on the side of caution for the players."

But he also seemed to suggest what research that has been done on COVID-associated myocarditis is not sufficiently convincing.

“Again, not being an expert, it sounds like it’s a debatable topic. A very debatable topic,” he added.

Ferentz said a quote “very small number” of players have expressed concerns, but haven’t made a final decision on whether to sit out the season.

“Everybody’s wanted to come back,” Ferentz said. “Nobody wanted to play more than the players.”

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter