Surprising no one, the health department’s star-studded COVID campaign is apparently a disaster

Dennis Quaid

Dennis Quaid
Photo: Bryan Steffy (Getty Images)

Last week, we reported that the White House had directed the Health And Human Services Department to spend $300 million that could’ve otherwise been used on, you know, health and human services to put together a flashy, celebrity-backed COVID-19 awareness campaign (featuring Dennis Quad!) designed to “defeat despair.” The idea, apparently, was to put famous people on TV and have them talk about the pandemic in a more optimistic way than you might normally get, all in hopes of raising the nation’s morale as we head toward Election Day. Sorry, did we mention Election Day? Because that’s totally unrelated to any of this. That’s so weird that we would think this has something to do with the election when it clearly does not.

Just because the idea came from the Trump administration, the plan was developed by HHS Trump appointee Michael Caputo (who has since taken a medical leave for cancer treatment), and the video firm hired to create the campaign is run by “a filmmaker who had no prior experience making U.S. public health campaigns” but happens to be a “business partner of Caputo.” Also, Election Day was apparently the “unofficial” deadline to get this campaign done, which makes it pretty obvious what this project is actually trying to accomplish. Other than that, though, there’s no reason to think this has anything to do with Election Day.

Anyway, those last two points about the deadline and the inexperienced video firm come from a new Politico report that details how this campaign—in the words of one anonymous HHS employee—has become a “boondoggle.” Shocking, right? The Trump administration is usually so competent. The anonymous employee also notes that the $300 million could’ve been used to buy medical equipment that is still sorely needed throughout the country rather than pay for “PSAs with C-list celebrities.” That’s probably unfair to Quaid, but so far the only spokespeople who have agreed to join this project are him, CeCe Winans, and Shulem Lemmer. Again: $300 million of taxpayer money.

Politico says the goals for this thing were once much loftier, though, with names like Taylor Swift, Billy Joel, and Justin Timberlake being tossed around at first, but Politico says it’s unclear which celebrities were even asked. A representative for Joel says no offer was ever made, while another representative for an unnamed celebrity said that associating them with this campaign would’ve been “malpractice.” Apparently, part of the plan was to have celebrities appearing alongside health officials like Medicaid boss Seema Verma, but some of the celebrities only wanted to participate if they could appear with Dr. Anthony Fauci, who doesn’t really have time for that kind of thing—though it also sounds like nobody’s in a hurry to drag Fauci into this anyway, since a planned chat with Dr. Oz was canceled when nobody bothered to actually arrange it.

Another unidentified person “involved in the process,” who said they would’ve needed to get “one celebrity per day” on camera in order to meet the (unofficial) goal of 20 PSAs by Election Day, summed it all up pretty well: “It’s been a total mess.”

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