Newswise – BATON ROUGE – A first-of-its-kind study conducted in conjunction with LSU’s School of Kinesiology, LSU Athletics, Pennington Biomedical Research Center and Our Lady of the Lake investigated how elite student-athletes’ immune systems reacted to COVID -19virus.
Football players who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 have been able to recover their immune systems to baseline levels after CDC-recommended isolation. This is in stark contrast to older people with comorbidities, who tend to be at higher risk for serious side effects and symptoms, and even death.
“When COVID-19 really started spiraling out of control, we sat down with LSU exercise physiologist Neil Johannsen and athletic trainers Derek Calvert and Jack Marucci, and discussed what we could do to make sure that our athletes remain healthy. We especially wanted to make sure that the athletes were not at risk of secondary infections when they returned from isolation,” said Guillaume Spielmann, associate professor in the School of Kinesiology at LSU.
Effective isolation after COVID infection
“When the idea for the research started, we discussed why not turn something negative into a positive and help research to find answers. If there are things we can do to better understand the virus, let’s do it,” said Jack Marucci, director of athletic training at LSU. “Student-athletes were ready to be a part of it.”
Meanwhile at the start of the COVID pandemic, the CDC had recommended 14 days of isolation.
“There were a lot of unknowns at that time. We are dealing with a population that is extremely close to each other during games and during matches. We wanted to make sure that since they’re literally face-to-face with other players, that their salivary defenses, their oral defenses were pretty much intact, and that part of their immune system wasn’t affected by disease; that there were no lasting effects of the disease,” Spielmann said.
Saliva samples were collected from 29 student-athletes in 2020, prior to a COVID vaccine. Fourteen were COVID-positive and 15 had no history of infection. Of the 14, only six reported mild symptoms of the virus, the other eight were asymptomatic throughout the isolation period.
“Salivary immunity is extremely important in making sure people don’t get secondary infections, so when athletes return we need to make sure they’re as healthy as possible. We’ve found that the period of isolation was sufficient to restore athletes’ salivary immunity to the level seen in uninfected players,” Spielmann said.
Safe return to play after COVID
These results suggest that student-athletes could return to training and play football safely without risk of secondary infection; that their immune system was not in danger when they practiced close contact sport.
“I was a little worried about long haul and other bigger outcomes like concerns about developing myocarditis. Engaging in sporting activities at an elite level can be stressful on the body and you would want to arming you with the best scientific information to help you understand the potential outcomes. This data has helped validate some of these decisions that have been made. Providing a safe environment for your student-athletes is paramount and this has helped in this process said Shelly Mullenix, LSU’s senior associate athletic director for health and wellness.
For this study, three graduate students also participated in the research. Their research is now published in Scientific reports.
“That kind of access is unique in Division I sports. You don’t usually have access to football players, so the fact that we have access is also hugely instrumental,” Spielmann said. “LSU is a great place for this field.”
“I think this COVID research is something that we’re really proud to be a part of and to help find answers to such a devastating virus,” Marucci said.
Spielmann, an immunologist, studies the impact of stress on the immune system of elite and tactical athletes, including astronauts and firefighters. But this study is not the first for Spielmann and LSU Athletics. They worked together to study psychological and physiological health, as well as measures of performance in other student-athletes and sports teams. A new study will take a closer look at the mental, physiological and immune resilience of female athletes in the face of stress. Funded by a grant from the Wu Tsai Foundation, this collaborative research led by Tiffany Stewart of Pennington Biomedical and Spielmann will include the participation of 50 LSU female athletes.
These groups also work together as part of the health system Partnership with Our Lady of the Lake. Our Lady of the Lake has committed $170 million over the next 10 years for initiatives focused on academics and athletics. Dr. Catherine O’Neal, Chief Medical Office of Our Lady of the Lake, said this partnership allows for increased collaboration and research between LSU and Our Lady of the Lake, as well as the Pennington Biomedical Research Center.