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When should students resume sports after a COVID-19 diagnosis?



Mitigating risk

Dr. David T. Bernhardt, professor of pediatrics, orthopedics, and rehabilitation at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison

Dr. David T. Bernhardt

COVID-19 adds elements of uncertainty and complexity to the usual process of mitigating risk in sports, Dr. Bernhardt noted in his lecture. “You are dealing with an infection that we do not know a lot about,” he said. “And we are trying to mitigate risk not only for the individual who may or may not have underlying health problems, but you are also trying to mitigate risk for anybody else involved with the sport, including athletic trainers and team physicians, coaches, spectators, custodial staff, people working at a snack shack, and all the other people that can be involved in a typical sporting type of atmosphere.”

When patients do return to play after an illness, they should gradually increase the training load to avoid injury. In addition, clinicians should screen for depression and anxiety using tools such as the Four-Item Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-4) when they see patients. “The pandemic has been quite stressful for everybody, including our high school student athletes,” Dr. Bernhardt said. “Giving everybody a PHQ-4 when they come into clinic right now probably makes sense in terms of the stress levels that all of us are experiencing.”

If a patient screens positive, take additional history and refer for more in-depth mental health evaluation and treatment if warranted. Sharing breathing and relaxation exercises, promoting healthy behaviors, and paying attention to unhealthy strategies also may help, Dr. Bernhardt suggested.

Ultimately, determining when an athlete with COVID-19 can be medically cleared to return to play may be a challenge. There are limited data on epidemiology and clinical presentations that could help identify cardiac injury related to the disease, Dr. Bernhardt said. Guidance from the American College of Cardiology provides a framework for evaluating athletes for return to play, and pediatric cardiologists have discussed how the guidance relates to a pediatric population. Cardiac assessments may include measures of biomarkers such as troponin, B-type natriuretic peptide, and sedimentation rate, along with electrocardiograms, echocardiograms, and cardiac MRI.

Beyond return-to-play decisions, encourage the use of cloth face coverings on the sidelines and away from the playing field, and stress proper quarantining, Dr. Briskin added. Too often, she hears about children not quarantining properly. “Individuals with a known exposure should be quarantined in their house – ideally in a separate room from everyone else. ... When they come out of their room, they should wash their hands well and wear a cloth face covering. They should not be eating with other people.”

Dr. Bernhardt had no relevant disclosures.


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