How much risk does the COVID vaccine pose to NJ student-athletes?
COVID-19 vaccines have been cleared for high schoolers as young as 16 ever since initial doses were rolled out in the United States in December 2020.
As of this past June, any child 6 months of age or older has been able to get a shot, but many teens and tweens have gotten a second, third, or possibly even fourth jab by this point.
With ever more doses being administered and evidence constantly building, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has disclosed rare occurrences of myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) or pericarditis (inflammation of the heart's outer lining) in adolescent or young adult male recipients of the vaccine.
The CDC says those who experience symptoms "can usually return to their normal daily activities" once symptoms improve, but recommends consulting with a cardiologist when it comes to resuming exercise or sports participation.
That advisement appears to be at the heart of a "more precautionary" approach to student-athlete sports physicals being taken in advance of this school year by Dr. Anthony Lucatorto, a doctor of osteopathic medicine who owns and operates Morris Sussex Family Practice in Lake Hopatcong.
Sports physicals are done primarily to make sure you are not at high risk for sudden cardiac death on the playing field. COVID vaccinations affect your risk. In response to worldwide experience and vaccine adverse event monitoring, we are adopting a more precautionary sports physical sign off policy. If you have received doses of any COVID vaccine, we will not be able to clear you to compete in sports without performing lab work and possibly an echocardiogram to rule out potential heart damage.
Lucatorto's policy was shared July 31 in the public, 13,000-member Facebook group "NJ Fresh Faced Schools" and garnered a variety of reactions.
"This is the new trend for doctors who wish to cover their butts!" one commenter said, while another called it "total insanity that parents are actually choosing to do this to their kids!!"
Still another respondent said, "This is an admission that you won't see in the Lame stream media."
Rutgers medical professor reacts
Dr. Stanley H. Weiss, professor of medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at Rutgers School of Public Health, said some medical practices do need to change and adapt post-COVID, but believes there may be a "misunderstanding" here.
Specifically, he said, heart abnormalities can develop as a result of SARS-CoV-2 infection itself, and particularly "long COVID."
Weiss believes it is likely that "the frequency of cardiac abnormalities, including in children, are more common among those people who get COVID infection than among those people who have gotten a COVID vaccine."
The Rutgers doctor agrees that more careful physical examination is necessary in the COVID era, but feels it is "a mistake to concentrate and single out" kids who have lined up for shots.
Asymptomatic, long COVID carriers are part of that group too, Weiss said.
"The body of people, of children in particular, who need these clearances to be done more thoroughly includes those people who have a history of COVID infection," he said.
More clarification needed?
Weiss fears that despite the many children who have already received COVID vaccination, the wording of the Morris Sussex Family Practice policy may deter some, whether by their own decision or their parents, from getting initial shots or future boosters.
"They should be reassured that the children got vaccinated, they should be vaccinated, and that we need increased monitoring for the children. We also need that for adults," Weiss said, adding he hopes the policy can be clarified or rewritten. "Vaccination remains important for protection, there's a reluctance that still exists that needs to be countered, and there is still so much misinformation out there."
Through a series of phone and email conversations, Morris Sussex Family Practice indicated that Dr. Lucatorto would be willing to discuss his office's sports physical protocols for the 2022-23 school year, but New Jersey 101.5 had not received any further response as of late Friday.
This story will be updated if and when more information is provided.
Patrick Lavery is a reporter and anchor for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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