ORLANDO, Fla. – Today, Governor Ron DeSantis was joined by Special Olympic International (SOI) athletes and their families, coaches, and disability community members to show support for all athletes competing in the 2022 USA Games, which begin this Sunday in Orlando. The State of Florida has worked hard to make this event as inclusive as possible, and after lengthy negotiations with Special Olympics International, there will be no COVID vaccine mandate for this event.


“Florida will always be welcoming to all of our athletes with disabilities, regardless of COVID vaccination status,” said Governor Ron DeSantis. “Special Olympics International should have never imposed a vaccine mandate on their athletes. Special Olympians who were in limbo for months will now be able to compete in Florida thanks to our continued actions to keep Floridians’ medical decisions private.”


One Family in Kansas went to six doctors to get their son with Down syndrome a medical exemption to be able to participate in the games. The family was told by physicians their son needed to get the first dose of the COVID vaccine, and only if he had any negative reactions would they approve the strict medical exemption form SOI was requiring. Under pressure, he took the first dose, had a seizure, and was hospitalized. Special Olympians should not have been pressured to make these decisions to participate when taking the COVID vaccine was not something that was advised by their physician.


“We have been fighting for the sake of these athletes,” said State Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo. “Fortunately, Governor DeSantis and I will fight for your rights. For the sake of anyone that has been coerced to make a medical decision they did not want to make, I will fight for your rights.”


“I was proud to stand alongside Governor DeSantis today as he advocated for the liberties of Florida’s children in the Special Olympics,” said Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Eric Hall. “I am glad Special Olympics International has finally recognized their error and rescinded their illegal vaccine mandate that would have limited opportunities for children with intellectual disabilities and stripped these impressive young athletes of an opportunity they worked tirelessly to earn. I thank the Governor for his unyielding defense of Floridians’ rights to make healthcare decisions for their own families and for continuing to fight to keep Florida free.”


“This is all about the athletes and I am thankful for Governor DeSantis and the Florida Department of Health for what they have negotiated with Special Olympics,” said Elaine Valle, mother of Special Olympics Florida Golf Team Member Isabella Valle. “Isabella has been competing since she was seven years old in various sports. The teams she has been on have been a large part of her life. Special Olympics Florida is about inclusion, and I am so thankful our team is back together.”


“I have been an athlete since I was eight years old, so competing in the USA Games was a big long-term goal for me,” said Frank Vernoia, Special Olympics Florida Golf Team Member. “Being told that I was able to participate and then a couple months later I was told no and threatened with emails saying I would have to prove my vaccination to attend the games was confusing. Fortunately, I did not give in and we had the Governor’s team and the Surgeon General standing up for us and I will be competing at Orange County National [Golf Course] this week.”


As Floridians were faced with losing their jobs over vaccine mandates, Florida stepped-up to ban vaccine passports. For six months Florida has been negotiating to support these athletes as much as we have supported other communities in the state. Athletes were told they could attend the Games and then a few months later those invitations were withdrawn if the athletes did not get vaccinated for COVID. Governor DeSantis and the Department of Health have ensured these athletes are not marginalized and are able to compete.


Governor DeSantis will continue to support Floridians of all abilities, and value their daily contributions to our communities – in addition to bringing home medals from the Games. Florida values its partnership with Special Olympics Florida to be inclusive for all who want to play sports.




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