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$300 million HHS ad won’t defeat our COVID-19 despair

Greg Nash

Dear taxpayer:

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is poised to spend $300 million of your hard-earned dollars on creating and airing public service announcements to prompt you to feel less despair about the global pandemic and the 208,000 mothers, fathers, sons, daughters and friends whose lives have already been claimed by COVID-19 and the thousands more who will be sacrificed to it this fall. 

In recognition of Friday’s news of an outbreak of COVID-19 in the White House, including the president and first lady, let us sincerely hope lives in the White House are spared, but that this ill-advised ad campaign is not.

This “Covid-19 immediate surge public advertising and awareness campaign” isn’t being orchestrated by anyone with experience changing social norms to improve health behavior such as mask-wearing, social distancing, hand washing, or the critical role of vaccination, once available.  

It is instead propaganda aimed at distracting you from the deeply unfortunate facts. It isn’t science-based, it isn’t being evaluated and it isn’t being vetted and approved by trusted public health officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), who are desperately fighting behind the scenes to stick to the facts and safeguard the public health against White House interference. Instead, these funds have been diverted away from the CDC’s life-saving work for this expensive public relations sideshow lacking any public health goals or legitimate purpose.

As public health and communications professionals who have decades of experience developing and launching proven-effective urgent life-saving public health educational campaigns, we are appalled at the misuse of these funds and resultant, terrible opportunity costs. These precious resources should instead have been devoted to contributing to more effective efforts such as markedly increasing mask use, helping to bring SARS-CoV-2 testing closer to the needed scale in the nation, the rapid development of effective treatments to safeguard our vulnerable populations’ health, and taking evidence-based steps to safely jumpstart our economy and reopen schools without putting lives (including frontline workers’ lives) at risk. 

Further, the resources for this campaign could have gone into the rapid development of a truly comprehensive national COVID-19 strategy; now the U.S. does not have a comprehensive national COVID-19 strategy, and one is desperately needed to deliver a more effective response and to ensure accountability and mid-course corrections when efforts fall short. The current patchwork quilt approach to addressing COVID-19 is producing a patchwork quilt of infections, hospitalizations and deaths, and it threatens needed access to care and prevention services for all. 

To be effective, behavior change campaigns of this kind require extensive pre-and post-evaluation, deep understanding of the target audience and sustained messaging. A “one and done” set of PSAs before the election involving loyalists instead of public health experts not only will not help but will likely only serve to tear apart our already divided nation further and, worse, potentially create COVID-19 complacency when vigilance is needed most as we move into a period of extreme risk when this virus and influenza may combine to make for an especially difficult fall and winter. 

But this campaign isn’t really intended to improve public health. This campaign is being developed at taxpayer expense to drive down concern about the gravest health threat facing the nation before Nov. 3rd. Media reports now suggest that the celebrities originally targeted for inclusion in the campaign are beginning to withdraw or avoid the effort given the emerging negative attention this campaign has drawn; we submit that it is simply time to end the development of this campaign once and for all and devote the resources once again to truly life-saving, evidence-based strategies.

If this Trojan Horse cannot be stopped in its tracks, then perhaps the ads should come with a warning from the Surgeon General: 

These messages are meant to soothe your feelings about the risk of COVID-19; they are not meant to provide you with meaningful assistance in actually protecting yourself, your family and your community from this deadly virus. Use them at your own risk.  

Cheryl Healton, DrPH, MPA, is the dean and professor of Public Health Policy and Management of the New York University School of Global Public Health. She was the founding CEO and president of Legacy (now the Truth Initiative). 

David Holtgrave, Ph.D., is the dean of the University at Albany School of Public Health and SUNY Distinguished Professor. His three-decade career in public health has included senior positions at CDC, Emory University and Johns Hopkins University. (The opinions noted here are not to be interpreted as a position of Holtgrave’s current or former employers.)

Julia Cartwright, M.A., is a senior associate dean of communications, promotion and public affairs at New York University School of Global Public Health. 


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