Coronavirus infections can cause heart problems in patients, according to experts — yet another unexpected, serious consequence of COVID-19 that has been underlined by reports of such injuries among college football players.
On Thursday, Penn State’s football team doctor Wayne Sebastianelli walked back earlier comments that 30% to 35% of Big 10 football conference players who had COVID-19 also had heart inflammation, telling ESPN the rate was actually lower, around 15%. (Penn State also told ESPN none of its players have the condition.)
The fumbled figures attracted a lot of attention, but didn't surprise epidemiologists, like Columbia University’s Mitchell Elkind, president of the American Heart Association, who told BuzzFeed News that from 20% to 30% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients seem to have symptoms of heart injuries, including myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle caused by viruses.
“Some of these long-term consequences of a coronavirus infection are only now coming into focus because enough time has passed by to see them,” said Elkind, particularly among “long-hauler” patients still suffering all sorts of lasting injuries from the pandemic virus.
As of Friday, more than 6.1 million cases of COVID-19 and nearly 187,000 deaths have been recorded across the US, leaving many recovered patients with long-term injuries with an unknown resolution, because the disease has been around for less than a year. Initially seen as a respiratory disease, COVID-19 also strikes the heart, kidneys, and brain, as well as causing blood clots and a bewildering array of other long-term symptoms in some patients.
“It seems that COVID-19 inflammation of the heart is different from classical myocarditis,” which causes an irregular heartbeat and shortness of breath, said cardiologist Christof Burgstahler of Germany’s University Hospital and Medical Faculty Tübingen, whose team reviewed some of the first cases. It’s too soon to tell whether that’s good or bad for patients, he added by email.
Myocarditis raises the risk for sudden cardiac death in elite athletes, according to the American College of Cardiology, explaining the attention around the Big 10 football players, a conference that last month canceled its fall football season. Essentially, football players and other patients will have to be monitored by doctors for signs of irregular heartbeat and blood markers showing signs of continuing damage to heart muscle. Some myocarditis patients require medication to maintain a regular heartbeat.
Other viruses — including some flus, for example — also cause heart inflammation, seen in perhaps 1% to 5% of patients, Elkind said, but the incidence in COVID-19 seems significantly higher, perhaps 10% to 15% even in patients without major symptoms.
“This is a serious, deadly disease that does more than just kill people, but leaves others with potential long-term consequences they may have to live with for a long time,” he said.
“This is all just one more reason to wear a mask, wash your hands, take care of your neighbors.”