Although by now it’s clear that the Trump administration holds nothing sacred, there are still some things it can do to shock our tired brains. Apparently, it has tried to get Santa Claus—Santa!—to participate in its crazy pandemic response plans.
A new report in the Wall Street Journal, which honestly could be a Netflix drama, goes into detail on a purported $250 million public service coronavirus advertising campaign with a Santa component. The Santa deal was whipped up by Michael Caputo, the assistant secretary for public affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services. According to the Journal, the campaign featured a quid pro quo arrangement for Santa Claus performers: Help us promote the benefits of covid-19 vaccination and you’ll get early access to the vaccine.
For those who forgot, Caputo is the same Trump appointee with zero medical experience who accused the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of having bogus “deep state motives” and demanded changes to official scientific reports. He is currently on medical leave.
A spokesperson for HHS told the Journal that the Santa “collaboration will not be happening.” The official added that department secretary Alex Azar did not know about Caputo’s Santa outreach discussions. While Santa is out, the rest of the campaign is now under review.
HHS officials told the Journal that Azar had “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.”
The government contract for the campaign, which was titled the “Covid 19 Public Health and Reopening America Public Service Announcements and Advertising Campaign,” had already been awarded to a market research and communications firm in Arlington, Virginia. It would have consisted of TV, radio, online and podcast announcements that were scheduled to start immediately, the outlet reported.
All of this, apparently, was meant to “defeat despair, inspire hope and achieve national recovery,” according to a work statement reviewed by the Journal.
In September, Caputo told the Journal that the campaign would focus on a variety of topics, including supposedly urging minorities to participate in covid-19 clinical trials. People of color, which have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, and pregnant women have historically been excluded from clinical research even in non-pandemic times. A month earlier, he stated that the public health effort would be an edgy media campaign featuring prominent Americans, including Surgeon General Jerome Adams.
Caputo spoke with Ric Erwin, chairman of the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas, that same August about his Santa idea, per the Journal. Erwin recorded the conversation and provided it to the outlet. In the call, parts of which are available on the Journal’s website, Caputo said that “frontline essential workers, health workers,” will be among those vaccinated early.
“From my perspective, if you and your colleagues are not essential workers, I don’t know what is,” he said in one of the audio recordings.
The Journal reported that Caputo told Erwin that he couldn’t wait to tell the president, who was going to “love this.”
Erwin, for his part, was on board with Caputo’s proposal and affirmed that almost 100 Santas had volunteered for the campaign. Caputo said the effort would involve “beautiful educational films” to raise awareness before a coronavirus vaccination drive and would require Santas to appear at special events. He said that vaccines likely be approved before Thanksgiving, the Journal reported.
“Since you would be doing Santa a serious favor, Santa would definitely reciprocate,” Erwin said. Per the Journal, the agreement also would have included Mrs. Claus performers and elves.
This is similar to the timeline touted by President Donald Trump, who has pushed the Food and Drug Administration to approve a vaccine and get ready to distribute it before the Nov. 3 election or right afterwards. Nonetheless, public health experts say it’s extremely unlikely to get one approved by then.
A White House spokesperson told the outlet that Trump was not informed of the plan to use Santa performers in the public health campaign.
The fact that the Trump administration would try to get Santas to peddle its propaganda is incredulous, and, as noted by the Journal, highly suspicious given the timing: right before the presidential election. Its effectiveness is also questionable considering the vaccine skepticism in the country. As much as I love Santa, I’m not going to get a vaccine just because Santa recommends that I do so. I will get a vaccine once trusted public health officials give it the OK.
Most importantly, though, the idea that the Trump administration could use early access to vaccines as bargaining chips is freaking scary, not to mention insulting for all the healthcare and frontline workers that are risking their lives right now to respond to the pandemic. That’s who first access should be reserved for, in addition to other particularly vulnerable groups. Like I said, I’m a Santa fan, but I do not consider Santas to be essential workers. Sorry.
Erwin, the head of the Santas, told the Journal that without a vaccine, he plans to cancel all but one socially distant Christmas booking this year. You gotta protect the Santas.