Is Cardiac Arrest Contagious?

Sudden cardiac arrest is what happens when the heart stops beating suddenly and unexpectedly. It is the leading cause of death of adults in this country. However, it is not just an adult thing. It is linked to 10% of SIDS deaths; is the leading cause of death of student athletes; and takes the lives of thousands of children every year.

Is it contagious?

Last week, two stories broke about the risk of sudden cardiac arrest in athletes. Cameron Smith, a twenty-four year old linebacker with the Minnesota Vikings, discovered a heart condition (bicuspid aortic valve) after being diagnosed with COVID-19. Biscupid aortic valve is a condition where the aortic valve has two leaflets instead of three. The aortic valve regulates blood flow from heart to the aorta. This is a structural heart condition and is usually inherited.

Then, the Big Ten reported at least ten players were diagnosed with myocarditis after testing positive for COVID-19. Myocarditis is an inflammation of the heart muscle (called myocardium) that limits the heart’s ability to pump blood. This condition is also structural, but it is acquired. It is caused by things like a virus or a drug interaction.

“We know that COVID-19 can attack the heart, said David Shipon, a cardiologist at Jefferson University Hospital and Chief Medical Officer of Simon’s Heart. “Typically, the worse the symptoms are from COVID, the greater the likelihood that the heart will become inflamed. But, all physically active individuals who are diagnosed with COVID should get their hearts screened because we are still learning about the effects of this virus.”

These stories amplify our message – testing and screening are so important. It is not enough for us to assume that Cameron’s heart was healthy for the first two decades of his life. He and all of his high school classmates should have been screened. He is an elite athlete. He won a state championship in high school, played at USC for four years, and was drafted by the NFL. Should he have to wait for a pandemic to find something so significant?

The case of the Big Ten players underscores the importance of screening for a different reason. It is not enough to report positive tests, hospitalizations and fatalities of COVID-19. We need to understand how this virus is compromising the hearts and other parts of our children. Over 300,000 children have tested positive for coronavirus, and while the mortality rate is very low today, how many of these children will suffer from heart failure or cardiac arrest in the future? We won’t know unless we screen and conduct research.

Sudden cardiac arrest is not contagious, although viruses like COVID-19 that can cause myocarditis are. Whether the conditions are inherited or acquired, we can prevent sudden cardiac arrest through screening and research. Our children don’t have to die from detectable and treatable heart conditions.