Tom Seaver died earlier this week; he was 75 years old. Seaver is probably the best player in the history of the NY Mets and had a 20-year career in MLB that led him to the Baseball Hall of Fame. He suffered from dementia and recently had contracted COVID-19.
Rest in peace, Tom Seaver.
Assuming that things continue along the trajectory they are currently on, the sports world will be very active very soon. Baseball, professional basketball and hockey are “up and running”, the NFL is about to kick off its season; college football will happen in some of its normal venues; soccer, tennis, golf and horse racing are ongoing too. It is almost as if the pandemic has been put under control.
Maybe, that is why a statement by Dr. Wayne Sebastianelli – the director of athletic medicine at Penn State – was so jarring. Originally, he said that almost one-third of the Big 10 athletes who tested positive for COVID-19 appeared also to have myocarditis based on cardiac MRI scans. Please note that Dr. Sebastianelli revised those figures saying that the data indicated about a 15% rate of myocarditis and not a 30-35% rate.
No matter … This is another new discovery as medical science learns more about COVID-19. There have been previous linkages between myocarditis and COVID-19; Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez is probably the most famous of the cases involving that linkage. And an important thing to know about myocarditis is that it can be fatal if left untreated, and that means a person who contracts COVID-19 and exhibits recovery from the virus may not be totally back to good health. There may be at least one lingering aftereffect which is less than benign.
Most people who need hospitalization for COVID-19 do not have cardiac MRIs done; so, the data for the general population is not available for comparison to the athletes tested here. Nevertheless, these are data that cannot be cavalierly set aside. Medical science needs to begin to shed light on a basic question here:
- Is this seemingly high rate of coincidence between myocarditis and COVID-19 related in some way to the rigorous physical activity that produces “elite athletes” such that this is a minor concern for the rest of us “normal folks”?
While that may appear on the surface to be a minor point and need not be considered in the times when issues such as vaccines and therapeutics are being studied, there could be important consequences from possible answers to the question above.
- Suppose a linkage can be shown between the training of an athlete and the likelihood of COVID-19 leaving behind myocarditis in the athlete after “recovery”. Might that affect the way athletes prepare for their lives in that field of endeavor? Would there be potential athletes who choose not to take on that added risk? Might there be vaccines or therapeutics that would minimize the chances of myocarditis even if COVID-19 were contracted?
- Suppose no linkage can be found between athletic training and myocarditis that follows a recovery from COVID-19. If that is the case, then there could well be an awful lot of people unknowingly walking around with myocarditis which can be fatal if left untreated.
Let me do some back-of-the-envelope math here. Before anyone tells me that this is too simplistic, let me plead guilty to that charge. The reason is that I am not an epidemiologist and cannot do the calculations rigorously, but the “simple math” makes me sit up and take notice.
- As of this morning according to Johns Hopkins University, there have been 6.17 million cases of COVID-19 in the US this year.
- As of this morning according to Johns Hopkins University, there have been 187 thousand deaths attributed to COVID-19 in the US this year.
- Simplistic Assumption Warning: If you subtract the deaths from the number of cases, you can approximate the number of people who have “recovered” from COVID-19 in the US this year. Again, using approximations, that would mean there have been 6 million folks who have “recovered”.
Now apply Dr. Sebastianelli’s data. If 15% of the people who contract COVID-19 also carry myocarditis with them AND if this is the situation with the general population and not just elite athletes, then there are approximately 900,000 people going about their everyday lives with a condition that “can be fatal if left untreated”. Here is a newspaper account of what Dr. Sebastianelli said and how the Big 10 may have considered it as part of its decision to postpone the 2020 football season. I am not trying to be Chicken Little; I do not know enough to be actively worried about this situation; I also do not know enough to ignore the possibilities here.
As the sports world continues along its path to return to a semblance of normalcy, I think we must continue to study and learn about COVID-19 and its long-term effects over and above its immediate effects. The resumption of professional sports – – and realistically I put college football in that category – – will provide a lot of money/profit for players and owners and athletic departments. Much of the attention has been given to the athletes in these endeavors as the ones upon whose shoulders that money will be accrued. But wait; there’s more…
For all that money to flow into various coffers, there are thousands of other folks who must be actively involved to make it happen. In addition to the players, coaches and officials, think about the people who set up and take down the stadium/arena environment, the concessionaires, the TV and radio production folks, the people who get the players and coaches to and from the game venues. If Dr. Sebastianelli’s data applies to the general population, then those people also are in harms way being around potential spreading events and potential COVID-19 spreaders.
When the NFL kicks off next week and limited college football happens weekly, all the COVID-19 problems related to sports may not be in the rear-view mirror.
Finally, here is another slant on the subtle effects of COVID-19 on life in America from a Tweet by Brad Dickson:
“Since all the bank lobbies are closed I’m starting a GoFundMe for bank robbers who are not able to ply their trade. Please give whatever you can. Thanks.”
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………