BALTIMORE -- Doctors learned early in the pandemic that COVID-19 was more than a respiratory disease. It was attacking bodily organs, including the heart — even in healthy, young athletes.
Enough athletes with COVID were experiencing heart inflammation, called myocarditis, that doctors at the University of Maryland and other Big Ten schools didn’t want to take any chances.
Myocarditis already was seen as one of the leading causes of sudden death in elite athletes, so doctors across the conference immediately imposed official protocols that kept some players off the fields for up to six months. Some grumbled, but everyone recovered.
“They could be walking time bomb and we’d only find out retrospectively,” said Dr. Yvette Rooks, who oversees care for more than 530 athletes on 19 teams as head team physician at the University of Maryland, College Park. “Some had symptoms and many did not. This really could save lives.”
The doctors also started taking a deeper look into the chests of each student-athlete testing positive for COVID-19 starting in the early months of the pandemic, eventually reviewing some 1,600 cases.
As they learned more about the risks, doctors scaled back intense testing and reduced the length of time out of play. But a registry created from the athletes’ health data is now poised to help the doctors understand more about the longer-term cardiovascular effects of COVID-19.
Doctors and researchers at the University of Maryland and other Big Ten schools plan to follow the athletes even after graduation to better understand the consequences of COVID-19 on the heart, said Rooks, also a clinical assistant professor of family and community medicine at the university’s school of medicine and a co-investigator on the registry.
The registry has specific findings from several tests, including MRIs, which are not typically performed on people testing positive for COVID-19. The detailed images found 37 cases of myocarditis, though only eight of those athletes had cardiovascular symptoms.
Lacrosse player Jack Brennan was one of the asymptomatic cases. While home in Rochester, New York, in December 2020, he took a COVID-19 test so he could visit his grandparents and was surprised it came back positive. He was even more surprised when he returned to College Park in January 2021 and an MRI found swelling around his heart.
He was frustrated to sit out the spring 2021 season, but with time and learning about the seriousness of the condition, he became more understanding.