In many medical corners, concern over the possible impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) on the heart – specifically myocarditis – is real.
For student-athletes at UL and elsewhere, as a result, an effort to be on the lookout for any cardiac complications stemming from contraction of the virus is ongoing in earnest.
“I do think we’re in the process of establishing a very thorough evaluation in that area specifically to make sure we’re doing our best for our players going forward from a safety standpoint,” UL football coach Billy Napier said.
The effort comes as the coronavirus continues to spread, infecting more than 5.6 million and killing more than 175,000 in the United States alone according to Johns Hopkins University data.
According to statistics provided Thursday by the school after multiple requests by The Daily Advertiser, UL reported a “total of 28 positive tests” among student-athletes – their sports not specified – from the time football players reported for voluntary workouts on June 9 through the week ending Aug. 15.
UL also reported five general-population students had tested positive and 26 were in isolation since fall-semester classes opened Monday. The school did not disclose how many tests were conducted.
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But when the Ragin’ Cajuns opened their preseason football camp earlier this month, Napier said none of his players were positive with the virus or in quarantine.
UL basketball coach Bob Marlin recently said none of his players had tested positive, and Cajuns women’s basketball coach Garry Brodhead said the same last Tuesday.
On Friday, in fact, UL athletic director Bryan Maggard said the Cajuns had only one student-athlete who currently was positive and just “a handful” in quarantine for exposure reasons.
For those student-athletes who have tested positive, however, the heart issue has become a subject of added scrutiny before they are permitted to return to practice.
“We will run EKG tests on them, we’ll look at the heart very closely – because we’ve been aware, as an industry for a long time, that there could be impacts on the heart associated with COVID,” Maggard said.
“But we’re also going to look at the lungs. There’s a lot of things we’ll look at, because we’ve all been aware. This isn’t new information, per se.”
It is, however, in the news and an issue that’s received amplified attention in recent days and weeks.
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INFLAMMATION OF THE HEART MUSCLE
On Thursday, Mikele Colasurdo – a highly hyped true freshman quarterback who enrolled early at Georgia State, which like UL belongs to the Sun Belt Conference – announced via Twitter that he’d been diagnosed that day “with a heart condition as a result of my Covid-19 infection.”
“Unfortunately,” he posted, “this means that I will not be able to play this football season.”
Late Friday, the SEC announced it was expanding its previously revealed COVID-19 management requirements to include a battery of heart-related tests.
“The SEC’s initial medical response plan for confirmed infected individuals called for a cardiac evaluation for those individuals returning to activity following isolation,” the league said in a statement. “The SEC’s Return to Activity and Medical Guidance Task Force has now specified the cardiac evaluation would mandate a troponin level, electrocardiogram, echocardiogram and a medical evaluation by a physician.”
But back up.
The momentum toward closer attention has been building for weeks now.
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In late July, The Journal of the American Medical Association published results of a study “including 100 patients recently recovered from COVID-19” in which tests revealed “cardiac involvement” in 78 patients and “ongoing myocardial inflammation” in 60 “independent of preexisting conditions.”
That prompted what the Journal called “the need for ongoing investigation of the long-term cardiovascular consequences of COVID-19.”
On Aug. 13, USA TODAY reported that “even if they recover in the short-term, there is a growing concern that athletes who have contracted COVID-19 might face potentially greater long-term health effects.”
USA TODAY also reported that “recent studies have shown an alarming number of cases of myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart muscle, in people who previously tested positive for coronavirus but no longer have symptoms.”
And as early as Aug. 10, ESPN reported “myocarditis was found in at least five Big Ten athletes and in several other athletes in other conferences.”
The Big Ten, Pac-12, MAC and Mountain West all have decided not play football this season, but at least as for now the Sun Belt, SEC, ACC, Big 12, American Athletic Conference and Conference USA are proceeding – albeit some with shortened and/or delayed schedules.
The myocarditis risk evidently factored into some if not all of those decisions.
“Where it really has not been recognized until really just the last two or three weeks is this concern that even people who have mild cases of COVID-19 can have lingering cardiac manifestations, even though they may be subtle,” Dr. Mitchell Elkind, president of the American Heart Association, told the USA TODAY Network’s Glenn Guilbeau last week.
“So, that’s what has gotten people concerned,” added Elkind, also a neurologist at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center. “Even people who recover from the virus may still have some evidence of heart damage.”
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It’s all part of why some in college athletics are taking no chances.
“Some of this information in regard to the heart came out in the last few days,” McNeese interim athletic director Heath Schroyer, who opted not to permit his Cowboys to play a season-opening football game against the Cajuns that had been scheduled for Sept. 5 at Cajun Field, said earlier this month.
“It’s a disease, a virus, that no one really knows a lot about. There’s just so much uncertainty with it.”
UL currently is scheduled to play Sept. 12 at No. 25 Iowa State, on the date the Cajuns originally were to have played Wyoming, who along with Missouri and New Mexico State also canceled games against the Cajuns for coronavirus-related reasons.
Maggard said Friday that the Cajuns, who also have added new non-conference games at Alabama-Birmingham and Central Arkansas, will proceed with an 11-game schedule and won’t try to land a 12th opponent, leaving than one of the maximum allowed by the Sun Belt.
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‘A STEP BACK’
The scheduling changes come as teams around the country, including some from the Sun Belt, continue to battle the virus.
Notre Dame paused football practice as cases on campus spiked earlier this week, joining North Carolina and others on hiatus.
Sun Belt member UL Monroe, which has reported 34 positive cases for student-athletes and staffers out of 1,404 combined tests across all sports since mid-June, suspended all football-related activity Friday after a coronavirus outbreak within the program produced nine positives.
Also Friday The Winston-Salem Journal reported Appalachian State of the Sun Belt had resumed football practice “in small groups … three days after the university shut down practices because of a COVID-19 cluster” in which 11 people associated with the program, seven athletes and four staffers, initially had active COVID-19 cases.
At UL, where Maggard said no student-athletes have been diagnosed with myocarditis as a result of COVID-19, losing the McNeese game largely stemmed from Schroyer’s concern over the virus and especially its potential heart implications.
“I think for me, personally, you have to take a step back when you read that,” said Schroyer, also McNeese’s basketball coach. “For me, personally, I think that weighed a lot onto my decision.”
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According to NCAA chief medical officer Dr. Brian Hainline, among the 1-to-2 percent of athletes at NCAA schools who’ve tested positive for COVID-19, at least 12 have been later found to have myocarditis.
For Maggard and others at UL, the reports reinforce a preexisting realization of the need for vigilance when it comes to such issues.
“They haven’t stopped looking at it,” women’s basketball coach Brodhead said of the newfound evidence, “and that’s the big thing, is that I don’t think we can turn our head to it, if that’s the case.”
‘STRESS AND PRESSURES’
Cardiac concerns are especially at the forefront of Cajun minds after UL lost two coaches to heart attacks in a span of about 13 months.
In July 2019, long before COVID-19 came along and coronavirus had a place into everyone’s vocabulary, Tony Robichaux – UL’s baseball coach for 25 seasons – died 10 days after he had a heart attack.
He was 57.
And earlier this month, Cajuns offensive line assistant coach D.J. Looney – a 31-year-old former Mississippi State offensive lineman – died of a heart attack he had on the practice field during a team mini-camp workout.
According to multiple UL sources, it’s believed Looney’s heart attack was not coronavirus-related.
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After Robichaux had his heart attack, but long before Looney had his, Maggard was inspired to institute a program for Cajun coaches in which physical exams are offered at the school.
“I think the key word is ‘inspired,’ to be honest with you,” Maggard said not long after Robichaux’s funeral.
“I had a conversation with Mr. Ray Robichaux, Tony’s dad, and one thing he told me in the church … ‘If you do one thing, Bryan, please make sure you have your coaches stay on top of their health.’
“That,” Maggard added, “kind of spawned a thought, and we were able to put this program together.”
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During one stretch last basketball season, multiple members of UL’s men’s basketball coaching staff got sick.
Brodhead, his voice raspy, was under the weather for a while too then.
Some of it he attributed to seasonal allergies.
“It’s part of being in a competitive-nature business,” Brodhead said at the time. “It’s the stress that comes with winning and losing.”
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The first session of Maggard’s planned physicals – encouraged, but not mandated – took place last November.
“Really what we’re doing is just making it very easy and accessible; bringing health care providers to our facility, as opposed to coaches and staff having to … make appointments,” he said.
Another session was scheduled for the spring, and then the coronavirus hit.
“To me it makes all the sense in the world (to offer physicals), just given the amount of stress and pressures and ultimate lifestyles that the profession of coaching can put on somebody,” Maggard said then.
“Everybody is very positive about it. As a matter of fact, I’ve heard from some of the coaches’ wives, thanking us for doing that.”
Sometimes, though, tragedy still strikes.
According to UL offensive coordinator and fellow offensive line coach Rob Sale, Looney’s heart attack came “totally out the blue.”
“If he was sitting in his chair in his office it would have happened and if he was at home it would have happened,” Sale said. “It was the good Lord saying, ‘It’s time; I’m ready for you.’”
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‘I DON’T FEEL LIKE I’M AT RISK’
The UL athletic department’s history with heart attacks, however, dates well before the passing of Looney and Robichaux.
That’s part of why the Cajuns felt prepared for addressing the cardiac-related component of the coronavirus concern.
In June 2016, shortly before he was supposed to report to campus, Herman Williams – a UL basketball signee from the Florida Panhandle – collapsed and died while working out on a local court back home.
“We do have very thorough physicals,” Cajuns men’s coach Marlin said earlier this month, “and we started doing some (heart) testing back when we lost Herman Williams a few years ago.
“That’s something that’s been important for our all athletic teams … and we’ve done a lot of testing in that area.”
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Football coach Napier said that after coronavirus shut down campus in mid-March, costing the Cajuns 12 of their 15 scheduled spring practices, “our return-to-play, return-to-summer physical was much more in-depth … than a typical year.”
Maggard said that even before this year the athletic department made sure a “baseline EKG on all incoming” student-athletes was established.
Also called an electrocardiogram, an EKG records electrical signals in the heart.
Not all UL student-athletes, according to Maggard, have had new EKGs since returning.
“However,” he said, “if we had any reason to believe an EKG was warranted for a particular student-athlete we would.”
Maggard said that includes all of those from UL who’ve tested positive for COVID-19.
Beyond that, the Cajuns are proceeding with hopes that effects of the virus – short-term, and long – won’t hit them too hard.
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Several UL football players have suggested they understand the potential peril they face while practicing and soon, they hope, playing.
Asked about the possible heart concerns for those who do get infected, Cajuns cornerback Jayrin Wilson said he feels “educated.”
“I definitely would be scared to have it,” he said, “but … we’ve been taking safety precautions, so, as far as that goes, I don’t feel like I’m at risk of getting it because of how good of a job we’ve done at this program staying safe with it.”
No matter how many precautions are taken, though, history over the last few months shows some inevitably contract COVID-19.
When they do, as at least one Sun Belt school has learned, keeping a close eye on the heart is imperative.
“Ultimately,” wrote Georgia State quarterback Colasurdo, whose Panthers currently are scheduled to open SBC play Sept. 19 against the Cajuns in Atlanta, “it was the procedures and tests set forth by GSU that allowed the doctors to find this condition in my heart and help keep me safe.
“I am very thankful.”
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