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Despite omicron, Ron DeSantis remains firmly against lockdowns and vaccine mandates

Florida's governor is reacting to the omicron variant much differently than New York's. Messaging around how to respond has varied widely by state, depending on politics and recent COVID burdens.

The omicron variant may present a serious challenge for state leaders. Most governors have yet to comment, but some Republicans are speaking out.

No governor is more critical of President Joe Biden's response to COVID than Florida Republican Ron DeSantis. He says the threat of a new worrisome COVID mutation won't change his pledge to stand firm against lockdowns and vaccine mandates.

“We are not in Florida going to allow any media-driven hysteria to do anything to infringe people's individual freedoms when it comes to any type of COVID variants,” DeSantis said this week.

Public health experts say it's too soon to tell how big a threat the new variant might be. But on Sunday, Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott, another leading Biden critic, took aim at the president's decision to temporarily halt flights to the U.S. from countries in southern Africa.

On Twitter, Abbott wrote, immigrants have recently been apprehended crossing our border illegally from South Africa. Biden is doing nothing to stop immigrants from South Africa entering illegally. Pure politics and hypocrisy.

Abbott's press secretary later said more than 50 undocumented migrants from southern Africa have been apprehended at the border this year.

After a severe spike from the delta variant over the summer, many Southern states - from South Carolina to Texas - have seen COVID cases drop dramatically. Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves allowed the COVID state of emergency to expire there this month. On NBC's Meet the Press on Sunday, he said despite the threat of the new variant, he remains opposed to federal vaccine mandates.

“The president's insistence on mandating them have hardened them against the vaccine. So I actually think it's the president's policies that have made it more difficult in rural states like Mississippi to get more and more people vaccinated,” Reeves said..

The Biden administration is encouraging everyone to get vaccines and boosters, but it's still uncertain how effective they are against the new variant. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, both Republicans, say more information is needed about the variant but, in the meantime, are pushing people to get vaccinated. Indiana's Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb was planning to end the state of emergency, but changed plans last week after the state saw a spike in COVID cases from the delta variant.

In Florida, after months of promoting vaccinations with near-daily appearances at sites around the state, DeSantis switched gears earlier this year, ramping up campaigns to block rules requiring face masks and vaccination mandates. He's taken to calling it the Free State of Florida, and he hired vaccine skeptic Dr. Joseph Ladapo as the state's surgeon general.

After a surge over the summer, COVID cases are way down now in Florida. Tourism is back up, surpassing the numbers in 2019 before the pandemic.

“They know you can come to Florida, you can get off that plane, you can go get a bite to eat,” DeSantis said. “And guess what? They ain't going to force you to cough up your medical papers. You can do anything. You can make the choices you want to make. And I think that's very appealing for people.”

Messaging around how to respond has varied widely by state, depending on politics and recent COVID burdens.

Florida's governor is reacting to the omicron variant much differently than New York's, where Gov. Kathy Hochul declared a state of emergency to help hospitals prepare for a possible surge and advised residents to wear a mask in public indoor spaces.

DeSantis, widely considered a contender for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, has made opposition to COVID mandates a signature issue. Rick Wilson, a former GOP political strategist and co-founder of the Lincoln Project, says that's for a good reason.

“He has a very keen sense of the Republican base,” Wilson said. “He has a very keen sense of what the Fox audience wants to hear, and they want to hear vaccine skepticism. They want to hear that they're going to oppose allowing private companies to mandate vaccinations for their employees.”

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.