With the exception of football, varsity sports programs across northwest Georgia wrapped up their first full week of competition. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has complicated the return to the classroom and the field/court, with concern over a worsening spread.

There is much discussion on how to conduct football and other fall sports safely in the coming months as state and local leaders have pressed for increased safety measures to cut down on possible avenues of coronavirus transmission.

The Capitol Beat News Service reported Dr. Jonathan Kim, Emory’s chief of sports cardiology and a member of the American College of Cardiology, noted Thursday early studies have shown around 20% of patients hospitalized for coronavirus have developed cardiac injuries, marking a much higher rate than the 1% of heart complications seen in typical hospital patients.

As a result, athletes and others with high-effort exercise regimens could be more susceptible during the pandemic to developing myocarditis, which causes inflammation in the heart muscle and can lead to serious injury or death, Kim said in a briefing Thursday. He stressed more data is needed to determine how often athletes have developed myocarditis specifically from COVID-19.

“What we know is if somebody has active myocarditis and they’re actively training (in) high-exertion physical activities, that can actually make the inflammation worse,” Kim said. “And when you have that inflammatory process within the heart muscle, if you are engaging in high-end physical activity, that could potentially precipitate dangerous heart rhythms (that) could lead to a cardiac arrest or a catastrophic outcome.”

Kim said student-athletes and their families ultimately need to make the determination whether fall sports competition is safe, while recommending schools and sports programs consider implementing heart-testing procedures such as cardiograms.

“I do think that lower-level sporting organizations — and really just looking at universities — (they) need to have the cardiac infrastructure in place,” Kim said.

Kim stopped short of recommending fall athletics’ cancellation. Kim said those decisions should be left to the local level, with schools and sports leagues making determinations based on advice from public health experts.

“I think that if an athlete were to choose not to participate for whatever the reason may be … I would respect that decision,” Kim said. “And I think athletes that choose to pursue must have the trust that their public health concerns are clearly being monitored and addressed.”

Earlier this week, Georgia High School Association Executive Director Robin Hines said he remains committed to the Sept. 4 start date of the high school football season, but cautioned games could be postponed as coronavirus infection rates evolve according to a statement released Wednesday.

Other fall athletic competition is underway, but that has not come without its own hiccups.

Rome volleyball was scheduled to hold its home opener on Thursday night, but a coach from the visiting team was sent home before the match due to a possible COVID exposure.

At this point, the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech have plans to move forward with fall sports practices in preparation for their upcoming seasons, while other conferences and universities across the nation have postponed fall competition.

Gov. Brian Kemp urged college football leagues on Wednesday to resume games this fall, calling the sport “a sacred tradition” that should be played “if we can ensure the safety of players, coaches and staff.”

“Based on recent discussions with university leaders and sports officials, I am confident that they are putting the health and well-being of our athletes first,” Kemp said. “I commend the football community for working around the clock to incorporate public health guidance and appropriate protocols as they plan for the future.”

Beau Evans of the Capitol Beat News Service contributed to this report.

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