About a third of Big Ten athletes who tested positive for COVID-19 appeared to have myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle that can be permanently damaging, says Penn State’s director of athletic medicine.

The comments Monday by Wayne Sebastianelli, first reported by the Centre Daily Times, could have major implications not only for college athletes but also for young people in general who contract the disease.

“When we looked at our COVID-positive athletes, whether they were symptomatic or not, 30 to roughly 35 percent of their heart muscles (were) inflamed,” Sebastianelli said at a State College (Pa.) Area school board of directors meeting. “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.”

The Big Ten announced its decision to postpone the fall sports season on Aug. 11.

Symptoms of myocarditis, according to the Mayo Clinic, include disruption of your heart muscle and your heart’s electrical system, reducing your heart’s ability to pump and causing rapid or abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias). The condition can lead to heart failure and death.

“You could have a very high-level athlete who’s got a very superior VO2 max (maximum amount of oxygen a person can utilize during intense exercise) and cardiac output who gets infected with COVID and can drop his or her VO2 max and cardiac output just by 10 percent, and that could make them go from elite status to average status,” Sebastianelli said. “We don’t know that. We don’t know how long that’s going to last. What we have seen 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.”

Two studies out of Germany published in JAMA Cardiology in July suggested that even if COVID-19 patients escape hospitalization, the virus can damage the heart.

Two months following their recovery, 78 infected patients were found to have structural changes to their hearts. A biomarker indicating myocardial injury similar to that occurring in heart attacks was found in 76 patients. Sixty patients suffered inflammation of the heart.

The second study examined autopsy reports from 39 people, 78 to 89 years old, who died in April. Analysis of cardiac tissue revealed the virus had infiltrated the hearts of 24 of the patients.

Boston Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez, 27, has been suffering from myocarditis attributed to his coronavirus infection earlier this summer. He is not expected to pitch this season.

COVID-19 was initially believed by scientists to threaten only the elderly and those with underlying health conditions or both. Young people were thought to contract only mild cases and make full recoveries.

Myocarditis affects at most only 10 percent of flu victims, according to a National Institutes of Health study.

The high percentage of COVID-positive Big Ten athletes with heart inflammation is bad news for the so-called “herd immunity strategy” reportedly being discussed by the White House. It suggests that the young and healthiest segments of the population are not protected from potentially permanent damage from the disease.

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Mike Moffitt is an SFGATE Reporter. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @Mike_at_SFGate

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