The latest recommendations from sports cardiologists on getting athletes with COVID-19 back on the playing field safely emphasize a more judicious approach to screening for cardiac injury.
The new recommendations, made by the American College of Cardiology’s Sports and Exercise Cardiology Section, are for adult athletes in competitive sports and also for two important groups: younger athletes taking part in competitive high school sports and older athletes aged 35 and older, the Masters athletes, who continue to be active throughout their lives. The document was published online in JAMA Cardiology.
Because of the evolving nature of knowledge about COVID-19, updates on recommendations for safe return to play for athletes of all ages will continue to be made, senior author Aaron L. Baggish, MD, director of the cardiovascular performance program at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, said.
“The recommendations we released in May were entirely based on our experience taking care of hospitalized patients with COVID-19; we had no athletes in this population. We used a lot of conservative guesswork around how this would apply to otherwise healthy athletes,” Dr. Baggish said in an interview.
“But as sports started to open up, and we started to see large numbers of first professional and then college athletes come back into training, we realized that we needed to stop and ask whether the recommendations we put forward back in May were still appropriate,” Dr. Baggish said.
“Once we started to actually get into the trenches with these athletes, literally hundreds of them, and applying the testing strategies that we had initially recommended in everybody, we realized that we probably had some room for improvement, and that’s why we reconvened, to make these revisions,” he said.
Essentially, the recommendations now urge less cardiac testing. “Cardiac injury is not as common as we may have originally thought,” said Dr. Baggish.
“In the early days of COVID, people who were hospitalized had evidence of heart injury, and so we wondered if that prevalence would also be applicable to otherwise young, healthy people who got COVID. If that had been the case, we would have been in big trouble with respect to getting people back into sports. So this is why we started with a conservative screening approach and a lot of testing in order to not miss a huge burden of disease,” he said.
“But what we’ve learned over the past few months is that young people who get either asymptomatic or mild infection appear to have very, very low risk of having associated heart injury, so the need for testing in that population, when people who have infections recover fully, is almost certainly not going to be high yield,” Dr. Baggish said.
First iteration of the recommendations
Published in May in the early weeks of the pandemic, the first recommendations for safe return to play said that all athletes should stop training for at least 2 weeks after their symptoms resolve, then undergo “careful, clinical cardiovascular evaluation in combination with cardiac biomarkers and imaging.”
Additional testing with cardiac MRI, exercise testing, or ambulatory rhythm monitoring was to be done “based on the clinical course and initial testing.”
But experts caution that monitoring on such a scale in everyone is unnecessary and could even be counterproductive.
“Sending young athletes for extensive testing is not warranted and could send them to unnecessary testing, cardiac imaging, and so on,” Dr. Baggish said.
Only those athletes who continue to have symptoms or whose symptoms return when they get back to their athletic activities should go on for more screening.
“There, in essence, is the single main change from May, and that is a move away from screening with testing everyone, [and instead] confining that to the people who had moderate or greater severity disease,” he said.
Both iterations of the recommendations end with the same message.
“We are at the beginning of our knowledge about the cardiotoxic effects of COVID-19 but we are gathering evidence every day,” said Dr. Baggish. “Just as they did earlier, we acknowledge that our approaches are subject to change when we learn more about how COVID affects the heart, and specifically the hearts of athletes. This will be an ongoing process.”