Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who faces re-election this year, has doubled down on downplaying the latest increase in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, saying that it is not a crisis and that the demand for Covid testing is hysteria.
The controversy over his comments comes after Florida had a 744 percent jump in cases in the past two weeks, joining Washington as the two states with the biggest jump.
Rubio, a Republican, faced backlash online for a New Year’s Eve tweet in which he said that the record numbers of people testing positive “for a sore throat isn’t a crisis. And people in the hospital for car accidents testing positive isn’t a surge. The real crisis is the irrational hysteria which has people with no symptoms waiting hours for a test or missing work for 10 days.”
Despite critical responses to the tweet, Rubio hasn’t backed down.
He has since sent a series of tweets questioning the seriousness of the latest spike in cases and the use of hospitalizations as a measurement of the severity of the omicron variant of the coronavirus.
“In the last week 1% of Americans tested positive (& that doesn’t include unreported home tests and asymptomatic who never tested) Yet ‘hospitalizations’ are 30% less than last January’s peak when we had far fewer cases,” he tweeted on Wednesday.
The U.S. recorded 1 million new Covid cases on Monday, and in the following two days, Florida set daily records for new coronavirus cases, according to an NBC News data analysis. Child hospitalizations nationally are soaring.
Hospitalizations in Florida have nearly quadrupled the past two weeks and are at more than 6,500. Adjusted for population Florida’s hospitalization rate is in the middle of the country, with about 30 hospitalizations per 100,000 residents.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, has banned mask and vaccine mandates. He and state Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo have also urged healthy Floridians to not rush out and get tested. During a news conference Monday, Ladapo said it’s time to stop “planning and living one's life around testing."
More than 13 million people, about 63 percent, in Florida have had two doses of the vaccine, according to NBC News' vaccine tracker.
In The Miami Herald, columnist Fabiola Santiago accused Rubio of “cherry-picking half truths” for saying that omicron infection is virtually unpreventable and for underplaying its high transmissibility.
“He makes the situation seem hopeless, that there’s nothing that can be done. He’s spreading dangerous information that could cost the lives of the unvaccinated, who are more vulnerable to the disease,” Santiago states.
Rubio acknowledged the record number of omicron cases, but said they are "virtually unpreventable" in another tweet and said illness from the variant is "far less severe." He added, "It's time to get back to normal and learn to coexist with an endemic virus by managing risk and mitigating harm."
A Rubio spokesman pointed to several of his tweets in response to request for comment.
Rubio’s Dec. 31 tweet came after Miami-Dade County, where he lives, saw record numbers of people seeking Covid testing.
People waited hours at testing sites. Some ran out of gas and others fell asleep at the wheel while waiting.
Many were testing as a precaution before Christmas and New Year’s Eve gatherings. Others were traveling and required negative Covid tests by the airline. Others exhibited symptoms or feared exposure.
The county added more testing sites and some are now open 24 hours. The county distributed free take-home rapid tests at public libraries. Some people have resorted to paying private health companies to get tested and avoid the crowds at the testing sites.
As U.S. case counts have risen, deaths do not appear to be surging. Officials have said the omicron variant appears to be less severe, particularly among those vaccinated.
Rubio pointed in his tweets to media reports stating that many people hospitalized for other reasons are testing positive for Covid and then are counted as Covid hospitalizations.
Although officials agree that vaccinated and boosted people have become less ill from the omicron variant, it has wreaked havoc on hospital, airline and other workers.
Hospitals have reported staff shortages and thousands of flights were canceled during the holidays because of a combination of airline workers out sick with omicron variant infections and winter weather.
Whether they are admitted to the hospital for Covid or other reasons, the Covid infections are putting patients in danger for other reasons and are straining hospital staff and resources. Also, the delta variant has continued to spread.
On a metric used to evaluate the stress level on hospitals from Covid patients, Florida measures high-stress.
Stress reduces a hospital’s capacity to handle other services, such as elective surgeries and raises the working hours of physicians and staff, Dr. Ali Mokdad, a professor at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at University of Washington School of Medicine, told NBC News last month.