Skip to main content

Study: Myocarditis present in less than 1% of COVID-positive athletes

2020 was full of instances that never happened before and hopefully never will again, including that week where it seemed a known heart condition could shut down an entire college football season.

In the days of early August, when college presidents, commissioners and epidemiologists held the weight of the entire college sports industry in their hands, there was a prevailing thought that even if it were possible to play a college football season in the throws of a pandemic, the threat of myocarditis was simply too great to risk it. A Big Ten study said it found myocarditis in 15 percent of COVID-positive athletes, and one doctor (mistakenly) said it was found in up to 35 percent.

This known but rare condition has been associated with other viral illnesses, but no one knew at the time exactly how rare it was with this new, scary viral illness. Or, at least not the doctors talking to the college sports decision-makers.

Months later, the season has come and gone and myocarditis quickly faded to the background because, thank the Lord, athletes were not catching bouts of heart arrest.

And thanks to the Journal of the American Medical Association, we now have an idea exactly how rare myocarditis was.

A study of 789 COVID-positive athletes found 30 abnormal screenings. Of those 30, five were found to have inflammatory heart disease -- three with myocarditis and two with pericarditis, a swelling of the membrane that surrounds the heart.

The point is not to trivialize the findings. Myocarditis is a serious condition and can be fatal if unidentified and untreated.

The point is to be thankful -- thankful that myocarditis is not more prevalent among the litany of COVID-19 symptoms, thankful that the fear of this condition was not erroneously used as justification to cancel the season.

"This study had a very clinically-relevant approach," Columbia University cardiologist and co-author Dr. David Engel told ESPN. "Patients who tested positive went through the recommended screening from the American College of Cardiology. It was only after there were abnormalities that we went on for further testing. Using this step-wise approach, we found what we considered to be clinically-relevant incidents of myocarditis and pericarditis to be quite low."