HHS cancels celebrities, keeps science in massive pandemic ad campaign  

Alex Azar
Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar's office told a congressional oversight committee it will cancel a controversial contract in its massive pandemic ad blitz after months of scrutiny. (Tina Reed)

Hollywood celebrities will not be convincing people to wear masks or get a vaccine in government-funded ads after all.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Wednesday nixed a controversial $15 million contract that sought to use celebrity messages to drive responsible pandemic behavior. However, the larger $250 million campaign will go on, albeit with a “new approach.”

The proposed pandemic campaign came under fierce political and public scrutiny after a quick bid-and-award process of the significant public funds and, as first reported by Politico, its intent to “defeat despair and inspire hope” during the final stages of the presidential campaign.

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HHS Secretary Alex Azar’s office sent a letter to the House Committee on Oversight and Reform summarizing its internal review and the cancellation of the contract. The committee had questioned both the $250 million public advertising contract, awarded to Fors Marsh Group, and the smaller $15 million “immediate surge” communications contract awarded to Atlas Research. HHS plans to continue with the Fors Marsh contract and its “science-based” campaign for public awareness.

RELATED: 'Red flag': New info on HHS' coronavirus ad campaign triggers renewed outcry

“The new approach would create a dynamic relationship with public health infrastructure, build on established messaging, and develop a comprehensive, consistent, coordinated, and science-based public education campaign with rigorous evaluation and regular impact reporting to inform decision making,” HHS said.

The House oversight committee chairs were glad to see the initial plan—which they referred to as an attempt to "spend precious taxpayer dollars and recruit celebrities in a thinly-veiled propaganda campaign to try to help President Trump politically"—scrapped.

"We are pleased that following our investigation, HHS finally pulled the plug on this corrupt scheme and committed to moving forward with a ‘new approach’ for educating the American people about the pandemic based on rigorous science and public health principles," they responded in a statement.

The campaign faced sustained blowback from public health officials, politicians and the public from the first reports of its proposal and on through a strange series of twists and turns. Initial complaints were critical of the effort, contending the money could be used better elsewhere, indicating an off-the-mark strategy or political maneuvering by the Trump administration.

Tom Frieden, former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) under President Barack Obama, posted a USA Today article about the proposed campaign and its initial goals with the note: “The best way to ‘instill confidence to return to work’ is to control the virus. It's not rocket science, it’s competence.”

Shortly after that, Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign staffer and then-HHS assistant secretary for public affairs, went on Facebook Live video and as part of a rant about the campaign, accused scientists at the CDC of “sedition." He told viewers he was personally ordered by Trump to undertake the HHS ad campaign. He took a medical leave of absence the next week.

RELATED: HHS bids out massive $250M ad campaign to put hopeful spin on coronavirus pandemic: report

Next, information leaked about the B-list celebrities involved, as well as the other well-known people Atlas contacted who either refused or didn’t respond to requests. A leaked spreadsheet showed the agency vetted celebrities politically, noting views on issues like gay rights and gun control.

Actor Dennis Quaid and singer Cece Winans were two of the confirmed participants and faced immediate criticism on social media. Both claimed their interviews were not political and only about public safety and the importance of wearing masks.

One final odd-but-true detail revealed last month? Caputo promised a deal to the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas to appear at live events around the country in exchange for counting them as essential workers so they could get early access to any approved COVID-19 vaccines.

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