Special Olympics reverses vaccine requirement after Florida threatens $27.5M fine

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The Special Olympics reversed its Covid-19 vaccine mandate for upcoming competitions in Orlando after Florida threatened event organizers with a $27.5 million fine over the requirement.

The Special Olympics issued a statement on Friday saying it will lift its mandate as directed by state officials on May 27 “based upon the Florida Department of Health’s interpretation of Florida law.”

This year’s Special Olympics USA Games are set to kick off Sunday and will wrap up on June 12. The event is expected to attract 4,000 athletes.

The Florida Department of Health sent a letter to Special Olympics International threatening the $27.5 million fine on Thursday. A copy of the letter, first reported on Twitter by ABC News, states that the Special Olympics had asked 5,500 people to provide proof of vaccination in order to gain access into the 2022 USA Special Olympics Games, which violates a state ban on requiring proof of vaccination.

“[Special Olympics International] was unable to bring the event into compliance for the benefit of their delegates,” the letter says. “And reinstate all who were denied access based on proof of vaccination.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday during a press conference hailed the decision by the Special Olympics to reverse the vaccine mandate as a win for the thousands of athletes who are expected to compete in the games. He said the mandate marginalized those players, especially those who have some immunity after previously testing positive for the virus.

“What connection that has to competing, I don’t understand,” DeSantis said of Covid-19 vaccines. “We’ve never seen something wielded like this vaccine to try to marginalize disfavored people.”

“And a lot of these special Olympians have also had Covid by now,” DeSantis said. “Most people have had it by now.”

DeSantis signed Florida’s ban on vaccine mandates in November as the Biden administration planned to roll out federal vaccine mandates that following month. The new Florida law led the Florida Department of Health to issue a $3.5 million fine against Leon County after 14 county employees were fired for not complying with a vaccine mandate. The state Department of Health later forgave the $3.5 million fine.

Florida’s health department is overseen by state Surgeon General Joseph A. Ladapo, who said during Friday’s news conference that talks leading up to the reversal by the Special Olympics began six months ago. Ladapo has long been skeptical of the safety and effectiveness of the Covid-19 vaccine. He said the vaccines mandated by the Special Olympics offer no protection at this point in the pandemic.

Ladapo’s zero-protection stance was a small shift from his previous take on vaccines, which is that they were one of many tools in the fight to spread Covid-19. But that protection also weakens over time, which is why the Special Olympics mandate would not be effective in stopping the virus, Ladapo claimed.

“Ethically, it doesn’t make sense,” Ladapo said. “It’s on the wrong side.”

He also said there needs to be more discussions about adverse reactions to the Covid vaccine.

“We don’t like to talk frankly about safety because it’s taboo,” Ladapo said. “But it is an honest conversation that needs to happen.”

Ladapo was one of more than 20 medical professionals who signed a memo in 2021 asking the U.S. Food and Drug Administration not to give final approval to Covid-19 vaccines, which were developed as Covid infected 85 million people nationwide. The memo asks for the FDA to undergo years of testing on the safety of the vaccines before they are given final approval.

The vast majority of medical professionals and organizations, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the FDA, Johns Hopkins Medicine and Mayo Clinic, advise the public to get the vaccine both to protect against the virus and to lessen serious symptoms of the virus.

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