Many student athletes who test positive for COVID-19 likely can have an uneventful return to their sports after they have rested for 2 weeks in quarantine, doctors suggest.
There are reasons for caution, however, especially when a patient has symptoms that indicate possible cardiac involvement. In these cases, patients should undergo cardiac testing before a physician clears them to return to play, according to guidance from professional associations. Reports of myocarditis in college athletes who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 but were asymptomatic are among the reasons for concern. Myocarditis may increase the risk of sudden death during exercise.
“The thing that you need to keep in mind is that this is not just a respiratory illness,” David T. Bernhardt, MD, professor of pediatrics, orthopedics, and rehabilitation at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, said in a presentation at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics, held virtually this year. High school and college athletes have had cardiac, neurologic, hematologic, and renal problems that “can complicate their recovery and their return to sport.”
Still, children who test positive for COVID-19 tend to have mild illness and often are asymptomatic. “It is more than likely going to be safe for the majority of the student athletes who are in the elementary and middle school age to return to sport,” said Dr. Bernhardt. Given that 18-year-old college freshmen have had cardiac complications, there may be reason for more caution with high school students.
The AAP has released interim guidance on returning to sports and recommends that primary care physicians clear all patients with COVID-19 before they resume training. Physicians should screen for cardiac symptoms such as chest pain, shortness of breath, fatigue, palpitations, or syncope.
Those with severe illness should be restricted from exercise and participation for 3-6 months. Primary care physicians, preferably in consultation with pediatric cardiologists, should clear athletes who experience severe illness.
“Most of the recommendations come from the fact that we simply do not know what we do not know with COVID-19,” Susannah Briskin, MD, a coauthor of the interim guidance, said in an interview. “We have to be cautious in returning individuals to play and closely monitor them as we learn more about the disease process and its effect on kids.”
Patients with severe illness could include those who were hospitalized and experienced hypotension or arrhythmias, required intubation or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) support, had kidney or cardiac failure, or developed multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C), said Dr. Briskin, a specialist in pediatric sports medicine at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland.
“The majority of COVID-19 cases will not present like this in kids. We have no idea how common myocarditis is in kids post infection. We do know that, if anyone has chest pain, shortness of breath, excessive fatigue, syncope [passing out], or arrhythmia [feeling of their heart skipping beats], they should undergo further evaluation for myocarditis,” Dr. Briskin said.
Patients who are asymptomatic or have mild symptoms should rest for 14 days after their positive test. After their infectious period has passed, a doctor should assess for any concerning cardiac symptoms. “Anyone with prolonged fever or moderate symptoms should see their pediatrician and have an EKG performed, at a minimum, prior to return to sports,” Dr. Briskin said. “Anyone with an abnormal EKG or concerning signs or symptoms should be referred on to pediatric cardiology for a further assessment.”
Most patients who Dr. Briskin has seen have been asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic. “They have done well with a gradual return to physical activity,” she said. “We recommend a gradual return so individuals can be monitored for any signs or symptoms concerning for myocarditis. The far majority of individuals likely have an uneventful return to play.”
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