Santas scrooged by Trump admin after bizarre vaccine deal goes south – Ars Technica

Even Santas are not safe during the pandemic.
Enlarge / Even Santas are not safe during the pandemic.

The Department of Health and Human Services has abandoned a deal to vaccinate Santa Claus performers as part of a $250-million taxpayer-funded public relations blitz, The Wall Street Journal reports.

According to the nixed Santa plan, performers would have received special early access to a future vaccine against the pandemic coronavirus. In exchange, the Santa Clauses, Mrs. Clauses, and accompanying elves would have promoted the vaccine to the public and participated in regional holiday events organized by the Trump administration.

Beginning to look a lot like chaos

The deal was reportedly gifted from the troubled mind of Michael Caputo, the HHS spokesperson installed by the White House in April. Caputo had no background in health when he took the position. Instead, he was reportedly placed in the department as a way for the Trump administration to assert more control over HHS Secretary Alex Azar. Caputo is a Trump loyalist, protégé of Roger Stone, and former Moscow-based political adviser who worked on public relations for Vladimir Putin.

In September, Caputo took medical leave from the department after a series of bizarre and alarming comments. For instance, in a Facebook live video that month, Caputo claimed government scientists were engaging in “sedition” and that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention harbored a “resistance unit.” He also made mention of long “shadows” in his DC apartment and warned that left-wing “hit-squads” were preparing a post-election armed insurrection. He noted that his “mental health has definitely failed.” In an equally stunning HHS podcast, Caputo down-played the coronavirus but spoke hauntingly about the pandemic’s death toll and how doctors are traumatized by watching COVID-19 patients “drown in their own fluids.”

Despite his short tenure at the HHS, Caputo grabbed headlines for his role in helping the Trump administration meddle and censor CDC public health guidance and scientific reports amid the health crisis. Another prominent feature of his time at the department is managing to transfer $300 million that Congress had previously budgeted for the CDC to the HHS for a nationwide “defeat despair” campaign.

Miracle on COVID-19th Street

Of the money taken from the world’s premier public health agency during a historic public health crisis, $250 million went to a contract with Fors Marsh Group, an Arlington, Virginia, market-research and communications firm. The firm was to help with the campaign’s central feature of video interviews between celebrities and administration officials, who would discuss the pandemic and the federal response.

Caputo and his team initially hoped to include big-name celebrities, such as Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, and Bon Jovi. But much of the plan fell apart amid disorganization and tepid interest from those celebrities. The biggest name they managed to wrangle was Dennis Quaid, who filmed an interview with top infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci. However, Quaid dropped out after his interview was seen as an endorsement of Trump. “I am feeling some outrage and a lot of disappointment,” Quaid said in a video posted on Instagram. In regards to the mistaken endorsement, he added: “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Current and former staff of the HHS likewise saw Caputo’s marketing campaign as little more than a public-relations push to bolster Trump’s reelection campaign.

But before things went south, Caputo also intended the campaign to include a Christmas miracle. Merry Santa Clauses would act as holly-jolly vaccine advocates and in exchange get to jump the immunization line.

Vaccine Grinch

In a call with Ric Erwin, chairman of the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas, Caputo could hardly contain his glee for the plan. “If you and your colleagues are not essential workers, I don’t know what is,” Caputo said on the call, which was recorded by Erwin and provided to the WSJ. “I cannot wait to tell the president,” Caputo said at another point about the plan. “He’s going to love this.”

Erwin, in turn, seemed enthusiastic to take part in the plan and work with the administration: “Since you would be doing Santa a serious favor, Santa would definitely reciprocate,” Erwin said.

“I’m in, Santa, if you’re in,” Caputo replied.

On the 12-minute call, Caputo claimed a vaccine would be ready by mid-November and that frontline workers—which apparently includes Santas, according to Caputo—could be vaccinated before Thanksgiving. Public health experts suggest such a swift vaccination timeline is highly unlikely, if not impossible.

The HHS on Friday told the WSJ that the Santa plan had been ditched and that the department is now reviewing Caputo’s campaign. Secretary 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 learning the news, Erwin told the WSJ that it was “extremely disappointing… This was our greatest hope for Christmas 2020, and now it looks like it won’t happen.”

Erwin said that nearly 100 Santas had signed up for the federal gig, which he was told would be finalized by mid-September. “They may have been fibbing a little bit to Santa,” he added.

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Santas scrooged by Trump admin after bizarre vaccine deal goes south – Ars Technica

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