HHS Wanted Santa Claus Actors to Promote a COVID Vaccine. Really?

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It looks like Santa Claus won’t be bringing a COVID vaccine down the chimney with him. Not this year, at least.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar confirmed that the Trump Administration has canceled a proposed ad campaign that would have featured professional Santa actors encouraging the use of a still undeveloped coronavirus vaccine. In exchange for their participation in the PSA campaign, these mall Santas (and Mrs. Claus and Elf impersonators) would have received an early dose of the vaccine. The now-scrapped campaign was apparently the brainchild of Michael Caputo, a one-time assistant health secretary in the Trump Administration, who is now on indefinite leave for physical and mental health issues.

Sterile Santa

Back in August, as the United States faced one of the worst peaks of the coronavirus, Caputo approached Ric Erwin, who serves as chairman of the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas. Caputo invited members of the league to participate in TV, radio, social media and podcast ads, as well as live events in 35 cities.

The campaign used the long-toothed title, “COVID-19 Public Health and Reopening America Public Service Announcements and Advertising Campaign.” Its goal, according to The Wall Street Journal, was to “defeat despair, inspire hope and achieve national security.” In other words, an army of mall Santas would flood the airwaves to encourage Americans to get vaccinated and to not despair in the face of the pandemic.

The pitch worked on the Santa fraternity, which agreed to take part under the condition that members would receive early vaccines. The request mirrored an agreement from 2009, when Santa performers got vaccinated early for H1N1.

Of course, such a request is probably merited. Santa actors are typically in the “at risk” category for contracting COVID-19, since they are likely of “advanced age” and have “underlying health issues” like obesity.

“Furthermore,” Erwin wrote, “health care officials all concurred that our high rate of interpersonal contact with young children (who are notorious vectors for disease dissemination) further highlighted our need for the vaccine.”

Maybe Next Year

When they spoke this summer, Caputo told Erwin that a vaccine would be approved by late fall. Additionally, he promised that Santas and other seasonal workers would receive a dose by Thanksgiving.

“If you and your colleagues are not essential workers, I don’t know what is,” Caputo told Erwin. “I cannot wait to tell the president,” Caputo added. “He’s going to love this.”

Unfortunately, as October turns to November, no such vaccine is yet ready for widespread use. Moreover, many Christmastime workers have witnessed the disappearance of their seasonal gigs, as department stores like Macy’s have canceled in-person Santa visits.

This week, a spokesperson for Secretary Azar told The Wall Street Journal that the “collaboration will not be happening.” Still, several drug-makers feel optimistic about the emergence of a COVID vaccine, that could be available by early 2021. In the meantime, best leave some Purell under the Christmas tree for Santa.

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