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

Kate Santich, Orlando Sentinel on

Published in Olympics

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.”

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