What happened: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) scientists and officials were sidelined in a decision to remove $300 million from the agency’s budget, which was diverted to the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) “defeat despair” ad campaign. CDC experts were subsequently frozen out of the ad campaign’s development, despite the agency paying for it.
Why it matters: The CDC relies on congressionally-allocated funds to carry out research and public health initiatives, activities that are literally saving lives during the COVID-19 pandemic. Transferring funds away from the CDC, with little-to-no consultation from CDC’s scientists and officials, may have impaired the CDC’s ability to effectively respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a decision that sidelined Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) experts, a political appointee from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) defunded the CDC of $300 million to carry out a “defeat despair” ad campaign. The HHS political appointee, Michael Caputo, HHS Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, has engaged in numerous examples of bullying scientists and attacking scientific research at the CDC, including burying, delaying, or adding political edits to CDC studies.
In June, Caputo and his team requisitioned $300 million that Congress had previously appropriated to the CDC for the ad campaign. This action was carried out abruptly and with minimal details given to CDC officials on how the money was going to be spent. Furthermore, CDC experts had little say in the development and content of the ad campaign. This dramatically differed from the way previous health awareness ad campaigns have been developed, with CDC experts taking a central role in the process, such as during the Trump administration’s efforts to fight opioid addiction. In another unusual move, Caputo and his team did not reach out to the government’s main partner in producing health awareness public service announcements, the Ad Council. Ad Council is a not-for-profit consortium that has spent decades partnering with the government on campaigns to fight public health problems like AIDS, opioids and obesity, and worked with the CDC earlier this year to promote a new CDC website on the novel coronavirus.
The House Oversight Committee's Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis has launched a probe into the ad campaign to investigate whether taxpayer funds were used to support a public relations campaign for the presidential election. HHS Secretary Alex Azar testified to the House committee that he has ordered a review of the ad campaign and has “taken steps” to ensure career public health officials, including those from the CDC, will review any materials from the campaign.
When Caputo was hired in April, he spent months campaigning an idea to HHS staff to “defeat despair” and “restore hope” amid the media’s reporting of the pandemic’s toll on America and the world. Caputo eventually decided to turn this idea into an ad campaign. One official said that Caputo “was almost like his own cinematographer, he had a very deliberate vision of what he wanted this [ad campaign] to be.”
In addition, Caputo’s team secured a separate $15 million contract from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for his ad campaign. The contract was awarded to Atlas Research and, as part of the contract, HHS recommended that Atlas Research use a subcontractor called DD&T. DD&T is run by Caputo’s longtime business partner, Den Tolmor, and Caputo spent weeks extolling Tolmor’s work, according to two HHS officials. Tolmor has no prior experience in producing American public health campaigns.
Several factors indicate that the “defeat despair” ad campaign was driven by political concerns, not by public health concerns. One staff member involved in producing the videos say that there was a rush to produce at least 20 public service announcements by Election Day. Caputo has stated that the ad campaign would not be stopped despite scrutiny from several parties, including “leftist scientists,” who he claimed are seeking to prevent the Trump administration from sharing good news. Recent documents obtained by the House Oversight Committee show that a highly political process was used to pick potential celebrities for the video ads. Of the 274 potential celebrities they were considering for inclusion in the ad campaign, contractors flagged and eliminated celebrities if they had previously advocated for gun control, LGBTQ+ rights, had supported President Obama, or had been critical of President Trump.
In one of the oddest moves, the Wall Street Journal reported that Caputo wanted Santa performers that helped with the ad campaign to receive access to the COVID-19 vaccine earlier than the general public. The Santa plan, which would have also included early vaccine access to performers who acted as Mrs. Claus and the elves, has now been scrapped by HHS. Caputo had wanted Santa performers to appear at rollout events associated with the ad campaign in as many as 35 cities. In a call to the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas, Caputo said that, since he believed that the vaccine would be approved by mid-November and would be distributed to essential workers, the Santa performers should be included in the group of essential workers getting early access to the vaccine. Caputo told them, “If you and your colleagues [of Santa performers] are not essential workers, I don’t know what is.”
In a process that thwarted the primary way that the CDC is funded, Caputo and his team worked on an ad campaign that was political in nature and mostly shut out CDC experts from participation in both the funding decision and the ad development process. Public health concerns were consistently ignored during the ad campaign – for instance, the Santa vaccine plan completely bypassed the current efforts of the CDC and the FDA to use science and equity to inform who will receive the COVID-19 vaccine first. The CDC desperately needs all the money it can get to fight the spread of COVID-19 across the US, and political appointees that sideline CDC experts and steal funds for political purposes are impairing the federal government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which will endanger the health and safety of millions of people.