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As USA Games near, some Special Olympics athletes in limbo over COVID-19 vaccination policy

By Kate Santich

ORLANDO, Fla. — Isabella Valle cried in joy last summer when she learned she’d earned a spot at the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games, being held in Orlando. But with opening ceremonies less than a month away, the 25-year-old golfer’s tears are now out of frustration and disappointment.

Her mother, Elaine Valle, received an April 22 email from Special Olympics International saying that COVID-19 vaccination is mandatory for all athletes. Because Valle has not provided proof of being vaccinated, the email states that her daughter cannot be part of the team and cannot compete in the games.

That could run afoul of the Florida law passed last year banning such mandates. It’s also counter to the policy of both Special Olympics Florida, the state governing body, and the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games local organizing committee, which is recommending but not requiring COVID-19 vaccines.

“Had they told us this at the very beginning, we would have said, ‘Thanks, but no thanks,’ ” said Elaine Valle, who lives with her husband and daughter in Belle Isle. “But they didn’t. They let her get all excited, and now it’s like a punch in the gut.”

Isabella Valle uses a wheelchair and has cerebral palsy, epilepsy and a shunt in her brain to prevent the build-up of fluid. Elaine Valle said her daughter’s neurologist advised against vaccination because of the potential for a fever that could cause complications.

“So we just decided to take all the precautions,” she said. “We wore our masks, we cleaned our hands, we stayed home.”

Elaine Valle believes her daughter is also protected by natural immunity, since everyone in the family caught COVID in February. Studies have shown a prior infection provides protection against the virus, though the Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends vaccination for those who’ve been sick and recovered.

“To deny her at this point is just heartless,” Elaine Valle said.

Her family is not the only one affected.

Frank Vernoia, a 30-year-old Special Olympics golfer from Port St. Lucie, says he too was told he can’t compete, though he has yet to get confirmation in writing from the international organization. Vernoia, who has a learning disability and epilepsy, has participated with Special Olympics since age 8 and said he’s been practicing for the USA games “for years.”

He said his own research turned him against vaccination.

“What they’re doing is terrible,” he said of Special Olympics International. “They’re saying it’s a choice, but if you don’t get [the vaccine], you can’t participate. To me, that’s not a choice. It’s a demand.

Numerous studies have shown the COVID-19 vaccine is safe and effective, particularly at minimizing the risk of severe illness, hospitalization and death.

Complicating matters further is the fact that some Special Olympians are especially vulnerable to serious complications if infected with COVID-19.

“What I know is that people with Down syndrome are 10 times more likely to die” from COVID-19, said Heather Barnes, executive director of the Down Syndrome Association of Central Florida. “It’s a really sad situation. To keep one vulnerable population safe, do we have to exclude another vulnerable population?”

Regardless, Florida law appears to be on the athletes’ side.

“Florida law prohibits employer vaccine mandates and vaccine passports,” Christina Pushaw, press secretary for Gov. Ron DeSantis, said in an email. “Hypothetically, if an event or entity in Florida were to impose a policy that required proof of COVID vaccination or ‘medical exemption’ as a condition of entry, service or participation, such a policy would be a violation of state law that protects medical freedom.”

A spokesperson for Special Olympics Florida noted the vaccine mandate does not come from the state organization.

“In alignment with Florida’s COVID-19 legislation, Special Olympics Florida does not mandate vaccines as a requirement to participate in Special Olympics Florida-sponsored trainings, competitions or events,” Communications Director Jim Stratton said in an email. “However, Special Olympics International sets policy for participation at the 2022 USA Games and will require proof of vaccination. … We encourage those that we serve to seek guidance from their physicians when making medical decisions.”

Similarly, Joe Dzaluk, president and CEO of the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games, said the local organizing committee has no vaccine mandate.

“Consistent with Florida law, we are not requiring and we will not be checking [for proof of vaccination] whether you’re a participant, a volunteer, a coach, a vendor or anybody else.”

In addition, event volunteers and family members — who will mix freely with the athletes — are not required to prove vaccination.

For the unvaccinated athletes, though, it’s a different matter. Special Olympics International is in charge of the athlete selection process. If participants have been uninvited from the upcoming Games, it’s not clear whether they would be allowed in.

Officials at Special Olympics International, based in Washington, D.C., did not respond to requests for comment.

Elaine Valle still hopes state authorities will intervene to allow her daughter to participate, but she knows time is running short. The games officially open June 5.

“It’s like, ‘Will she or won’t she?’ ” the mother said. “I don’t want to get her hopes up again.”

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