TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis again lashed out at the news media when he suggested Wednesday a bias in coverage of the pandemic, even as concerns swirl over more contagious strains of COVID-19 potentially spreading at gatherings celebrating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' victory in the Super Bowl.

"The media is worried about that, obviously," DeSantis said during a news conference in Venice.

"You don't care as much when it's a 'peaceful protest,'" he continued. "You don't care as much if you're celebrating a Biden election. You only care about if it's people you don't like."

DeSantis has routinely asserted that there is a bias against conservatives and Republicans, particularly among reporters who have asked tough and sometimes uncomfortable questions about the governor's handling of the public health crisis.

But when a journalist asked DeSantis about the spread of a more contagious variant of the virus in the context of super-spreader events following the Super Bowl, the governor took it as an unjustified hit against the home team.

"I'm a Bucs fan," the governor proclaimed. "I'm damned proud of what they did on Sunday night."

The Bucs' hometown held a boat parade Wednesday afternoon along the Hillsborough River -- a celebration officials said was more conducive to social distancing. They invited fans to join in, but urged them to wear masks and to keep their distance along Tampa's Riverwalk.

After the Buccaneers' victory, celebrations erupted across the region — and prompted maskless throngs to spill into streets. The governor's comments seemed to fault news outlets for focusing some of their coverage on revelers who were seen openly ignoring public health precautions, such as wearing masks or observing social distancing.

DeSantis himself did not appear to be wearing a mask — at least at times — while attending the Super Bowl. He later quipped that he couldn't drink with a mask, according to an account by Politico.

"How the hell am I going to be able to drink a beer with a mask on? Come on," the governor was quoted by a Politico reporter as saying.

The public health consequences of the celebratory gatherings won't be known for weeks, said Dr. Jay Wolfson, a professor of public health and the associate dean of the college of medicine at the University of South Florida.

"It's very difficult to chastise people who wanted to let loose just this once. We've been locked up for a year," he said. "Now we sit back and do the surveillance and the monitoring."

The Florida Health Department has reported nearly 1.8 million people infected with the disease since the outbreak began a year ago. More than 28,000 have died thus far.

While hospitalizations from the virus have been on a downward trend for nearly a month — dipping from highs above 7,600 to below 5,000, according to the state's census Wednesday — concerns remain about any additional casualties.

Of particular concern are new strains of the virus that are more contagious, including a variant first detected in the United Kingdom last year that could now be making a foothold in Florida.

There are now 343 known cases of the UK variant in the Sunshine State — more than twice than what has been detected in California, which has nearly double the population of Florida.

State health officials have said the high number is also an indication of the state's more robust testing program for the new variants.

The spread of the more contagious forms of the virus is also prompting concern over the effectiveness of current vaccines against new variants.

"We've not seen any data or any evidence to suggest these vaccines are not effective," the governor said at his news conference, adding that his state would stay the course on its push to vaccinate its sizable senior population.

To date, more than 2.1 million Floridians, almost three-fourths of them seniors over 65, have received at least the first shot of one of two vaccines approved in the United States for use against the coronavirus. Of those, more than 800,000 have completed the two-shot regimen.

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