A federal health agency halted a public-service coronavirus advertising campaign funded by $250 million in taxpayer money after it offered a special vaccine deal to an unusual set of essential workers: Santa Claus performers.
As part of the plan, a top Trump administration official wanted the Santa performers to promote the benefits of a Covid-19 vaccination and, in exchange, offered them early vaccine access ahead of the general public, according to audio recordings. Those who perform as Mrs. Claus and elves also would have been included.
The Department of Health and Human Services said Friday the Santa plan would be scrapped. The deal was the brainchild of the official, Michael Caputo, an HHS assistant secretary, who took a 60-day medical leave last month. The rest of the campaign now is under an HHS review.
The Santa “collaboration will not be happening,” and HHS Secretary Alex Azar had no knowledge of Mr. Caputo’s outreach discussions, an HHS spokesman said. Mr. Caputo didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Ric Erwin, chairman of the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas, called the news “extremely disappointing,” adding: “This was our greatest hope for Christmas 2020, and now it looks like it won’t happen.”
The decision comes as the Covid-19 spread continues to accelerate in most states, and the vaccines are unlikely to be broadly available to the public before the holiday season.
The coronavirus ad effort—titled “Covid 19 Public Health and Reopening America Public Service Announcements and Advertising Campaign”—was intended to “defeat despair, inspire hope and achieve national recovery,” according to a work statement reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. It was to include television, radio, online and podcast announcements, starting immediately.
The public-relations blitz began to fizzle after some celebrities, including actor Dennis Quaid, shied away from participating, a former White House official said, amid concerns that the campaign would be viewed as political rather than aiding public health.
In a video posted on Instagram last month, Mr. Quaid said he had interviewed Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, for the planned public-service announcement. “I am feeling some outrage and a lot of disappointment” about the unpaid PSA, Mr. Quaid said, which was mistakenly viewed by some as an endorsement of President Trump. He added: “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Mr. Quaid couldn’t be reached to comment.
Mr. Azar has “ordered a strategic review of this public health education campaign that will be led by top public health and communications experts to determine whether the campaign serves important public health purposes,” HHS officials said in a statement.
In a 12-minute phone call in late August, Mr. Caputo told Mr. Erwin of the Santa group that vaccines would likely be approved by mid-November and distributed to front-line workers before Thanksgiving.
“If you and your colleagues are not essential workers, I don’t know what is,” Mr. Caputo said on the call, which was recorded by Mr. Erwin and provided to the Journal. “I cannot wait to tell the president,” Mr. Caputo said at another point about the plan. “He’s going to love this.”
Mr. Erwin said on the call: “Since you would be doing Santa a serious favor, Santa would definitely reciprocate.”
Mr. Caputo said: “I’m in, Santa, if you’re in.”
Mr. Caputo contacted Mr. Erwin after he had testified at an HHS advisory meeting in late August urging early vaccinations for performers portraying Santa, Mrs. Claus and elves. Mr. Caputo told Mr. Erwin on the call that the administration planned to hold regional events with features including “beautiful educational films” to drum up awareness ahead of a coronavirus vaccination drive.
Mr. Caputo said he wanted Santas to appear at rollout events in as many as 35 cities. In exchange, he said the Santas would get an early crack at inoculation.
Mr. Caputo, who had been installed in his job by the White House, said in August that the public health effort would be an edgy media campaign featuring prominent Americans including Surgeon General Jerome Adams.
In September, after the contract award was disclosed on USAspending.gov, Mr. Caputo said in an interview with the Journal that it would focus on a variety of topics including urging minorities to participate in Covid-19 clinical trials. The work statement said “the vast majority of the funds” were expected to be spent between August and January.
The idea had buy-in from top White House advisers. In a coronavirus task force meeting during the summer, senior Trump adviser Jared Kushner discussed how officials would get influencers to do public-service announcements encouraging people to wear masks and social distance, according to the former White House official, who was in attendance.
“Mr. Kushner has had no role in the public relations campaign referenced here,” but helped execute a strategy to educate the public about “critical mitigation techniques,” said White House spokesman Brian Morgenstern. He also said Mr. Trump was never informed of the plan to use Santa performers.
Three Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives last month criticized the campaign, questioning its timing just before a national election. The contract was awarded on Sept. 1.
“We are concerned that the Trump Administration appears to be misusing taxpayer dollars to fund a political propaganda campaign—disguised as a public health effort—just weeks before a presidential election,” wrote Reps. James E. Clyburn (D., S.C.), of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, Carolyn B. Maloney (D., N.Y.), of the Committee on Oversight and Reform, and Raja Krishnamoorthi (D., Ill.), of the Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy.
Mark Weber, HHS’s deputy assistant secretary, said the campaign has no political component.
“There is no room for political spin in the messages and materials designed by HHS to help Americans make informed decisions about the prevention and treatment of COVID-19 and flu,” Mr. Weber said in a statement.
Mr. Weber said the campaign is designed to “provide important public health, therapeutic and vaccine information as the country reopens, and give Americans information on the phases of reopening.”
Ben Garthwaite, chief executive of Fors Marsh Group, an Arlington, Va., market-research and communications firm that won the contract, also said the campaign isn’t political in nature. He said the firm has no ads or materials to show at this time.
Mr. Weber said vendors aren’t paid “until products are delivered.”
Without a vaccine, the Santa group’s Mr. Erwin said, he plans to cancel all but one socially distant Christmas booking this year. Mr. Erwin—whose Facebook page includes posts critical of President Trump and his handling of the pandemic—said his members are discussing ways to do their work with virtual visits, plexiglass and photo opportunities with a Santa trapped in a Covid-safe snow globe.
He said nearly 100 Santas had volunteered for the HHS assignment, adding that agency officials had said they would finalize the plan to use the Santas in mid-September.
“They may have been fibbing a little bit to Santa,” Mr. Erwin said.
—Suzanne Vranica contributed to this article.
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