Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara. (Photo courtesy Doug Greenberg/Flickr)

More than 250 Special Olympics Northern California athletes took to the field on Thursday, but for this, it was to get their vaccine.

Santa Clara County Supervisor Susan Ellenberg teamed up with Special Olympics Northern California and the San Francisco 49ers to host athletes and their families at Levi’s Stadium and provide free one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccines.

Special Olympics athletes are individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities who compete in Olympic-style competitions.

They are also one of the more at-risk populations in the nation. A March 2021 study published in the New England Journal found that intellectual disability was second only to older age as a risk factor for dying from COVID-19.

The study found that individuals with intellectual disabilities are two and a half times more likely to contract COVID-19 than the general population, and 2.7 times more likely to be admitted into the hospital for COVID-19. They are also six times more likely to die from COVID-19.

Tyler Krochmal, senior public relations and communications manager for Special Olympics Northern California, said that this is likely because this population often faces challenges in dealing with other ailments simultaneously.

“They just often don’t have access to the same information and sometimes the resources that are available are maybe harder to understand or harder to access or comprehend, so all of those add up,” Krochmal said.

He added that many live in group home settings, which may make it more difficult to properly social distance as well.

Krochmal said that getting 250 out of the roughly 1,000 special Olympic athletes in Santa Clara County vaccinated was a nice win.

He said the overwhelming energy at the stadium was relief, especially as Sourdough Sam entertained those waiting in the observation room after getting the shot to make sure there were no severe reactions.

“Our athletes are waiting to get back to normal life to compete in sports, to see all their friends,” Krochmal said. “So, this is a big step for them to take.”

Since the pandemic’s start in March 2020, the Special Olympics were forced to go virtual for their events.

Krochmal said the non-profit hosted more than 600 hours worth of Zoom walking club events as well as meetings to disseminate health resources, fitness guides and at-home workouts.

“So much of what we do is in person, so that’s been a major change for the organization and for our athletes,” Krochmal said. “We’re definitely eager to get back to the field and have athletes compete as soon as we can safely.”

Special Olympics Northern California has about 26,000 members, so getting them all vaccinated will be a feat, but Krochmal is pleased with the progress.

The site at Levi’s Stadium is Special Olympics Northern California’s third partnership so far.

Since March 15, when those with intellectual and developmental disabilities became vaccine eligible, his organization has teamed up with the University of San Francisco and University of Pacific Dental School to set up vaccination sites to provide vaccinations for more than 200 athletes.