Emory experts warn against fall sports being played amid pandemic

Emory University infectious disease experts have raised strong concerns about fall sports being played in areas, such as Georgia, that have high levels of COVID-19 cases.

Dr. Carlos del Rio said in a video conference Thursday that many communities have COVID-19 case levels that exceed what he believes would allow for a safe return to athletic competition, ESPN reported.

del Rio

“I feel like the Titanic,’’ said del Rio, who serves on an NCAA COVID advisory panel. “We have hit the iceberg, and we’re trying to make decisions of what time should we have the band play.’’

“We need to focus on what’s important,’’ he said, according to ESPN. “What’s important right now is we need to control this virus. Not having fall sports this year, in controlling this virus, would be to me the No. 1 priority.”

Much attention in the recent debate over college football has focused on a rare heart condition, myocarditis, that has been seen in several athletes.

Citing health concerns, two “Power Five’’ conferences – the Big Ten and Pac-12 – have decided to postpone football till the spring. Two other conferences, the Mid-American and Mountain West, have also opted not to play football this fall.

But the Southeastern Conference (SEC), the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) and the Big 12 still plan to play, starting next month.

Conference officials and athletic directors told ESPN that the uncertainty about the long-term effects of myocarditis has been discussed in meetings of presidents and chancellors, commissioners and athletics directors, and health advisory board members from the Big Ten, Pac-12 and other conferences around the country.

The state of Georgia – home to the University of Georgia in the SEC and Georgia Tech in the ACC – has the second-highest per capita rate of COVID-19 cases over the past week, trailing only Florida, according to the New York Times. The state reported more than 100 deaths from the disease Tuesday and Wednesday.

Gov. Brian Kemp, an Athens native and ardent UGA Bulldogs fan, said Wednesday on Twitter that he wanted football played if it can be done safely.

“Across the South, college football is a sacred tradition, and I want to see it played this year if we can ensure the safety of players, coaches and staff,” Kemp wrote, according to the Augusta Chronicle. “Based on recent discussions with university leaders and sports officials, I am confident that they are putting the health and well-being of our student athletes first.”

Kemp also announced Thursday that he is dropping his lawsuit against the City of Atlanta over its mask mandate and other pandemic-related restrictions, but he indicated he will address these issues in an upcoming executive order.

The cardiac factor

Dr. Brian Hainline, the NCAA’s chief medical officer, said 1 percent to 2 percent of athletes at NCAA schools tested for COVID-19 have been found to have it, ESPN reported. Of those, he said he knows of a dozen cases of a viral-triggered heart condition called myocarditis, which can pose a risk for sudden cardiac arrest and death.

Myocarditis has been detected in at least 15 players in the Big Ten, reported CBS Sports.

In a statement Tuesday, the Big Ten announced that “multiple factors” including the “medical advice and counsel” from its experts led to what it is deeming the postponement of the fall sports season.

Dr. Colleen Kraft, who like del Rio is an infectious disease associate professor at Emory and member of the advisory panel, said she appreciates conferences that have decided to hold off “because that keeps the safety of athletes as the No. 1 priority.” She said of those planning to play fall sports, “There will be transmissions [of COVID-19], and they will have to stop their games,” ESPN reported.

In addressing concerns about myocarditis, Kraft said, “We are playing with fire.”

She added, “I think one case of myocarditis in an athlete is too many.”

Uncertainty remains

Separately, a third Emory University physician Thursday said the decision on football or other sports being played this fall should be based on a public health evaluation, and whether there’s substantial community spread of the virus.

Dr. Jonathan Kim, a sports cardiologist, told reporters in a video conference that myocarditis is a rare inflammation of the heart muscle, typically caused by viruses. The majority of cases don’t lead to long-term health effects, he said.


Among hospitalized COVID-19 patients, about 20 percent have evidence of cardiac injury, which can include myocarditis, added Kim, who is a consultant for Georgia Tech.

He declined to comment on whether he participated in the ACC conference’s medical advice on playing football this fall.

Ordinary people who get regular exercise don’t generally need heart testing, but high-level athletes should have cardiology screenings, Kim said.

Much about myocarditis – and about COVID-19 – is not known, he emphasized. “We must respect what we don’t know and what we’ve seen.’’

“When we diagnose myocarditis in athletes, what we recommend is a minimum of three months of no high-end physical training,” Kim said.

The state has delayed the start of high school football until next month, and the Savannah Chatham district has gone even further, postponing games till October.

Temporary hospital fills a big void

The temporary hospital at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta is treating 31 COVID-19 patients after reopening 10 days ago.

That’s a much higher number of patients than the facility handled in its previous stint of caring for virus patients. The hospital is getting patients from metro Atlanta as well as South Georgia and the northeast part of the state.

Georgia World Congress Center

The center is treating COVID patients who are not in critical care situations, said Lisa Rodriguez-Presley of the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency, which is running the temporary hospital along with Grady Health System. The facility can care for patients needing oxygen or IV fluids, she said.

The capacity for the temporary hospital is 120 beds.

The World Congress Center initiative is “freeing up beds so desperately needed by patients who require hospitalization for trauma or other serious conditions,’’ said John Haupert, CEO of Grady, in a statement Wednesday.

“The Georgia World Congress Center is a much-needed resource at a time when getting a handle on COVID-19 seems to elude us,’’ he said. “My hope is that we don’t need the center very long. Closing it would show that our community has stepped up its game, followed the recommended precautions, and done its part to reduce the effect COVID-19 has on our lives, our families, our friends, and our health care providers.’’