A recent athlete study published in the Circulation Journal of the American Heart Association in April of 2021 shows little evidence or direct connection to college athletes who have had Covid-19 and heart-related issues. Those findings suggest that once students recover from Covid-19, they can safely return to play without additional treatment or testing.
Why is this athlete study a game-changer?
Before this athlete study, doctors and colleges feared that a mild Covid case or those who were asymptomatic all ran the risk of undetected heart issues. These hidden issues would cause concern for both the families and the athletic organizations to allow the students to play without additional cardiologist testing and clearance. Neither the doctors nor the athletic organizations wanted to risk. No one wanted the liability of putting a student-athlete at unnecessary risk without the proper medical authorization. Previous smaller-scale studies such as that in Ohio State University showed as high as a 15% risk of heart-related issues post-Covid among athletes.
In the spring of 2020, athletes would undergo extensive health screenings before
returning to play. The theory was an athlete that contracted Covid-19 is at risk of developing undetected heart inflammation. This inflammation could lead to cardiac arrest if the student were to play sports before undergoing additional medical testing.
As of this new report, only 21 out of 3018 (0.7%) athletes had heart abnormalities. The average age of the athlete was 20 years old. This report means that students can return to normal activities once fully recovered from Covid without additional testing.
What else does this mean for sports from a risk management and liability perspective?
While students and athletes should still consult with their doctor and have a routine physical before taking on any new physical activity or program, the athlete study report shifts the unknown burden.
Student-athletes can now get back to playing the sports they love without additional MRIs, bloodwork, and EKGs. The post-COVID conversation is between a patient and a doctor and does not involve the athletic department.
While safety and the well-being of the students and athletes are always a concern, the hidden unknowns of underlying heart issues from Covid does not have to be at the forefront with additional hoops and medical clearances to jump through.
Before this study, with the recommendations from last spring, letting a college student play without proper medical clearance could result in a lawsuit for negligence. While every athlete, whether in college or club sports, is aware of the game’s risks, no organization wants to be held responsible. Or worse, the organization could be sued for negligence from an undetected underlying medical issue because of Covid-19.
What will this athlete study mean going forward & how can colleges and other organizations protect themselves?
While the study was small, it is not the end. More research is continuing to understand all athletes’ after effects. This is especially true for high school and college. Organizations will still require standard physicals and medical clearance to compete at a competitive level. Any underlying heart issue found during a routine physical and exam would require more medical testing for the athlete to play.
Studies like this have gone beyond amateur sports into the professional arena too. In March of 2021, there was additional research about the low percentage of heart issues in pro athletes. This March study was on a larger scale and showed similar statistics. The more information available on both amateur and professional levels adds to all athletes’ safety.
The best way for organizations to protect themselves from potential liability claims is to have the proper insurances in place. Thorough record-keeping and documentation on all the players is a must. Keeping documentation on physicals, health issues, injuries, doctors’ notes, and participant information is helpful. It is important to track the history of the athlete. This protects the organization if an undetected health issue arises, resulting in tragedy. Proper documentation protects the organization against potential litigation.
Other Sadler risk management content on COVID return to play.
More information on how organizations are returning to play is in our recently updated article – Amateur Sports and COVID-19: How To Return to Play (sadlersports.com). This updated article changes to keep up with the changing Covid guidelines for sports. This guideline also has resources such as templates for amateur organizations to use in their protocols for return to play.
We have specialized return to play templates for teams/leagues, camps, tournament hosts, and facilities/studios. Also, adding COVID language to your waiver/release form is a critical component: minor waiver/release, adult waiver/release, stand-alone COVID waiver/release.
Be sure to check out our risk management resources for the latest on COVID, waiver/release, child abuse/molestation, brain injury/concussion, heat illness, general risk management, etc.
For the risks that can’t be prevented by risk management, be sure to see the customized sports insurance programs we have available for teams/leagues, camps/clinics, facilities/studies, tournament hosts, outdoors, etc. Most of our programs offer instant online quotes/pay/print.