Study: Less Than 1% of Pro Athletes Infected by COVID-19 Developed Heart Disease

Joseph Zucker@@JosephZuckerFeatured ColumnistMarch 4, 2021

Boston Red Sox's Eduardo Rodriguez walks to the dugout after pitching during the seventh inning of a baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles in Boston, Sunday, Sept. 29, 2019. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

A study showed five out of 789 professional athletes diagnosed with COVID-19 also experienced inflammatory heart disease. 

A study from 15 doctors published by JAMA Cardiology (via ESPN's Kevin Seifert) looked at cardiac testing between May and October 2020 for COVID-19-positive athletes from the NFL, NBA, WNBA, NHL, MLB and MLS. The results showed that five (0.6 percent of the total number) "ultimately had cardiac magnetic resonance imaging findings suggesting inflammatory heart disease." Three had myocarditis, and another two had pericarditis.

As people learned more about the effects of COVID-19, concern arose as to whether athletes would be at higher risk of suffering from a heart condition. 

ESPN's Paula Lavigne and Mark Schlabach reported in August that myocarditis was discovered in "at least five Big Ten Conference athletes and among several other athletes in other conferences." As a result, university administrators at schools in Power Five conferences were worried about how they could safely stage fall sports.

Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez missed the entire 2020 MLB season after testing positive for COVID-19 and then being diagnosed with myocarditis.

Florida star forward Keyontae Johnson collapsed during a game in December and was later diagnosed with heart inflammation. His family followed up in February to say his situation "was not related to or a result of a previous or current COVID diagnosis."

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The study's results shouldn't overshadow the fact that athletes were still susceptible to lingering COVID-19-related issues that may not have been as significant as inflammatory heart disease.

Utah Jazz star Rudy Gobert said his sense of smell was still limited months after his diagnosis. In February, Boston Celtics star Jayson Tatum explained the problems he continued to experience even after returning to the court.

"Just running up and down the court a few times, it's easier to get out of breath or tired a lot faster," Tatum told reporters. "I've noticed that since I've had COVID. It's just something I'm working on."

Per Seifert, Dr. Robert Bonow, a cardiologist at Northwestern, underscored how the long-term consequences of COVID-19 remain unknown. 

"Only time will tell if, five years from now, we'll have an epidemic of failed hearts," Bonow said. "But I think that is unlikely."