Doctor says one-third of Big Ten athletes who contracted Covid-19 show signs of heart inflammation

By Leah Asmelash and Homero De la Fuente, CNN

    (CNN) -- Up to 35 percent of Big Ten athletes who had Covid-19 now show signs of inflammation of the heart muscle, a top Penn State doctor says, reigniting the debate over the safety of playing sports during the pandemic.

Wayne Sebastianelli, Penn State's director of athletic medicine, revealed that 30 to 35 percent of the cardiac MRI scans conducted on Big Ten athletes who had contracted Covid-19 appeared to show myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle. The announcement came during the State College Area Board of School Directors meeting.

"When we looked at our COVID-positive athletes, whether they were symptomatic or not, 30 to roughly 35 percent of their heart muscles are inflamed...and we really just don't know what to do with it right now It's still very early in the infection. Some of that has led to the Pac-12 and the Big Ten's decision to sort of put a hiatus on what's happening." Sebastianelli said.

On how myocarditis could potentially affect an athlete in the long term, Sebastianelli said they don't yet know about whether this would affect the status of athletes -- making them go from elite to average.

"What we have seen is when people have been studied with cardiac MRI scans — symptomatic and asymptomatic COVID infections — is a level of inflammation in cardiac muscle that just is alarming," he said.

The Big Ten conference has already announced that it would be postponing all fall sports.

"As time progressed and after hours of discussion with our Big Ten Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Big Ten Sports Medicine Committee, it became abundantly clear that there was too much uncertainty regarding potential medical risks to allow our student-athletes to compete this fall," said Commissioner Kevin Warren at the time.

CNN has reached out to the Big Ten Conference for comment but has yet to receive a response.


Pressure to play


The league has found itself under increasing pressure to move forward recently, with some athletes, coaches and even the President of the United States saying the conference should play.

"I've been calling for football to be back, including Big Ten. Big Ten, get with it. Open up your season, Big Ten," President Donald Trump said at his Friday rally in New Hampshire.

Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh also decided to, according to him, "throw a little controversy" into the debate of whether or not the Big Ten conference should be playing football this fall.

Harbaugh, the brother of Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, whose team plays in the Big Ten, said on Wednesday, "Free the Big Ten, let's go, let's play some football. Let's get Michigan and Ohio State and all those great teams out there and play some football. Michigan has zero positive tests in August. They are doing a great job with their protocols. And those guys want to play."

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) released guidance on organized sports on Thursday, recommending against contact sports at this time.

The sports include football, basketball, and soccer.

"As we begin to start organized sports back up again, I urge school districts and athletic associations to do everything in their power to protect players, coaches, and staff. That means carefully following the guidelines released today by DHHS," Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer said.

She added, "Going forward, we will continue to work with health experts to assess the risk associated with business sectors that remain closed."

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