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Are athletes at less risk for coronavirus?

Before entering the field gates for football strength and conditioning camp at Arlington Martin High School in Arlington, Texas, athletic Trainer Joey Pena uses a thermometer on the forehead of sophomore running back Gervawn Neville for a temperature check.
Before entering the field gates for football strength and conditioning camp at Arlington Martin High School in Arlington, Texas, athletic Trainer Joey Pena uses a thermometer on the forehead of sophomore running back Gervawn Neville for a temperature check. (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – At a Thursday roundtable with former players and current coaches at the University of North Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis said that student-athletes are less likely to have elevated health risks compared to the general public and the elderly and are, therefore, more resistant to coronavirus.

“Someone who is playing at Suwannee (High School), playing wide receiver, who is working out every day is just going to be someone (who) has less risk than someone who has multiple comorbidities or is in a long-term-care facility,” DeSantis said. “The vast majority of folks in this age group — 15-18 — (who) tested positive have had zero or mild symptoms, and I would say if you look at people with underlying health conditions, these athletes will be amongst the very, very top to fight off the virus.”

If what the governor said is true, why have scores of professional athletes, college and high school players have tested positive for COVID-19?

A Sports Illustrated compilation of numbers reported by schools and local media found at least 800 college football players have tested positive for the virus. News4Jax can find no similar national numbers for high school players. But this week a coach at Greenville High School in Tennessee said six of his players had tested positive, a high school in Corpus Christi, Texas, suspended practice after football player tested positive, and two dozen players and five coaches at Tavares High School in Central Florida are quarantined after two players tested positive.

Former Jaguars offensive tackle Tony Boselli, who is still involved with the organization, contracted COVID-19 back in March. He had to be hospitalized and said later that coronavirus “almost buried him.”

Given the seemingly conflicting information, News4Jax decided to run the governor’s claim through our Trust Index. We looked to epidemiologist Dr. Jonathan Kantor for insight.

“If I had to put my money on whether a fit athlete in his early 20s is going to do well versus an elderly woman in her 70s who is obese and has diabetes and has blood pressure, clearly the athlete is going to do better,” Kantor said. “My only worry, though, is that that (the athlete) is also going to be more active and much more likely to resume aggressive levels of activity and ... we don’t know what level of heart damage happens for those who have really, really mild disease or asymptomatic disease.

Kantor said athletes are more likely to be asymptomatic because of their physical fitness, but that means if they have the disease and don’t know it, they may face bigger health problems related to heart disease later on.

On Friday, former Florida State University basketball player Michael Ojo collapsed and died while working out with the Red Star Belgrade in Serbia. The 27-year-old was reported to have tested positive for coronavirus but had recovered. Local media reported that he died of a heart attack.

Kantor added that because athletes may be unaware that they have the virus, they could unknowingly expose someone else.

″Even if you are in perfect shape… you don’t know if you’re not going to have some serious outcomes from the coronavirus, and it’s been very difficult to develop predictive models that reliably predict down to the individual if you have risks,” he said.

Research also shows the human body is more vulnerable to virus infection for a period of three to 72 hours after extremely intense exercise, according to an associate professor of sports education at Fudan University in China.

So…are athletes more resistant to COVID-19? There’s some truth to the claim, but the Trust Index team still rates this claim with a “Be Careful” because the chances of an athlete being asymptomatic is much higher and that doesn’t guarantee there will not be consequences to that person or others.

Be Careful

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