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GOP governors play down Omicron ‘hysteria’ while also asking for help


TALLAHASSEE — Republican governors are downplaying the rapid explosion of new Covid infections — but they still want Joe Biden’s help stopping it.

Governors in Florida, Texas, Nebraska, Mississippi, Georgia and South Carolina have all recently made it clear: No shutdowns and no vaccine mandates. Gov. Ron DeSantis this week criticized some states that tried to staunch the spread of omicron infections, saying, “If you look at what’s going on in other states, they are letting hysteria drive them.”

Yet DeSantis, as well as Texas GOP Gov. Greg Abbott, called on the Biden administration to do more to get the new, highly contagious variant under control. So have Arkansas’s Asa Hutchinson and New Hampshire’s Chris Sununu, though both have warned of the dangers of the new variant. Abbott on Friday urged the administration to “to step up in this fight and provide the resources necessary to help protect Texans,” including more monoclonal antibody treatments that have been effective in treating Covid-19.

DeSantis this week asked the federal government for more antibody treatments and hammered the White House for not providing promised at-home testing kits. He said on Tuesday that this week Florida is only going to get one-third of the antibody treatments it wants.

“Bogarting these treatments like that and not putting them out is wrong,” said DeSantis, who slammed Biden for failing to meet campaign promises to stop the virus.

DeSantis’s criticism this week is part of balancing act for him and other Republican governors as they navigate an ongoing public health crisis, their future political aspirations and constituents exhausted after facing almost two years of life in a pandemic. While some voters may be indifferent, the elected officials still acknowledge that something must be done to help vulnerable populations.

“Given the clinical profile so far of Omicron, it’s not justifiable to let fear overwhelm you,” DeSantis said, later adding, “They’re just never going to be able to get out of that rut, and it’s just going to continue to hurt a lot of people, and it ain’t going to do anything, you know, to slow down or to stop an incredibly contagious airborne virus.”

One of DeSantis’ most vocal defenders on Twitter about pandemic-related issues is state Rep. Alex Andrade (R-Pensacola), who blasted critics of the governor who he accused of politicizing common-sense health decisions.

“You can acknowledge those simple facts and treat people like adults, while still taking a virus seriously,” Andrade said. “I think the governor has done the best job of that nationally.”

Still, Florida had the third largest rate of new Covid-19 infections in the nation as of last week. The Omicron surge led Florida to surpass its highest infection rate recorded during the Delta surge, which killed thousands as it spread rapidly in Sunbelt states over the summer. But Florida is not seeing the same increase in hospitalizations. Only 10 percent of the roughly 57,000 hospital beds available statewide were occupied as of Monday, which is less than the 28 percent from the height of Delta in August.

While DeSantis and Abbott have minimized the Omicron surge, several GOP governors, including the Texas governor, have pressed their residents to get vaccinated and have publicized their decision to get a booster shot. (DeSantis has not made it clear if he has gotten one and his press office has called it a personal medical decision.)

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, who is facing challengers from both parties ahead of his 2022 reelection, made it clear he supports vaccines while at the same time opposing mandates: “I believe it’s time to trust our citizens to do what is right for themselves and for families,” he said during a press conference last week.

Kemp has also responded to the surge in new cases by spending millions to put additional health care workers on the job and by asking the Georgia National Guard to help hospitals and staff testing sites.

Georgia state Sen. Jason Anavitarte, a Republican who represents a suburb outside of Atlanta, praised Kemp’s approach.

“At the end of the day, I think it’s all about personal responsibility,” Anavitarte said. “I think that’s what the public wants, that’s what I hear from people all the time.”

But a primary focus for several GOP governors remains access to monoclonal antibody treatments, which are designed to treat someone who has already been infected. After some initial studies suggested they were not effective against Omicron, the federal government suspended the shipment of two types of treatment only to quickly backpedal amid criticism from Republican-led states including Florida.

DeSantis has maintained that the treatment doses are needed because there are still people getting hit with the Delta variant, which ravaged the state during the summer and early fall.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said that Florida has continued to get shipments of four different types of antibody treatments and that it delivered 30,000 doses in the past three weeks. The spokesperson also said that the state already had a stockpile of more than 33,000 previously received doses.

“In other words, Florida should have a strong supply of product on hand – and more than most other states,” the HHS spokesperson said in an email. “We will continue to work with Florida to supply them with federal resources to support the on-the-ground response, and we encourage leaders to continue their efforts to increase vaccinations, which can prevent infection in the first place, are much less costly than the therapeutics, and are the best tool available to protect Americans.”

Democrats have also laid into DeSantis’ continued emphasis on monoclonal antibody treatments. Rep. Lois Frankel (D-West Palm Beach) said that the governor glosses over the fact that many of those getting infected are unvaccinated.

“Instead of focusing on prevention, Gov. DeSantis is focused on treatment that is not even effective against Omicron,” Frankel said on Tuesday.

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