COVID-19: HHS Public Education Campaign Information


What the GAO found

During the summer of 2020, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs (ASPA) within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) worked with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) procurement offices and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to solicit proposals and award prizes to two companies in support of a public education campaign on COVID-19. The primary goals of the campaign, according to the award documents, were to share information about preventing the spread of COVID-19 and increasing vaccine acceptance. ASPA officials developed and led the campaign, while FDA and NIH staff oversaw the technical aspects of the procurement process.

  • The FDA awarded a nearly $15 million contract in September 2020 to Atlas Research, a consulting firm. The award primarily focused on developing a series of public service announcements for multiple media channels. The ads had to feature members of the entertainment industry and public health officials.
  • The NIH awarded a $250 million prize in September 2020 to Fors Marsh Group, a consulting firm, which then developed several messages for the public about vaccine development and COVID-19 prevention. The messages were designed for television, radio, print and social media. Fors Marsh Group also designed the campaign theme and logo, We can do it (see figure).

HHS We can do it Web page

In October 2020, following congressional investigations and negative media coverage of the campaign, the then Secretary of Health and Human Services convened a panel of public health officials to ensure that the campaign served important public health purposes. The FDA terminated Atlas Research’s contract in November 2020, following internal HHS review. Fors Marsh Group continued to work on the campaign.

ASPA paid for both awards and other campaign costs with COVID-19 relief funds earmarked for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Specifically, the CDC and ASPA entered into a $300 million interagency agreement, initially funded by $100 million from the CARES Act and $200 million from the Paycheck Protection Program and the Health Care Act. improvement in health care. HHS budget officials report that the department subsequently identified a more appropriate source of funding and that the CDC adjusted its budget accounts to use only its CARES Act funds for the $300 million interagency agreement. dollars with ASPA.

Why GAO Did This Study

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, HHS has launched a nationwide public education campaign led by ASPA. Congressional committees and the media have raised questions about the direction and timing of the campaign. There were also concerns that funds intended for the CDC were used to pay for the effort.

The CARES Act includes a provision for the GAO to report on the federal response to the pandemic. In addition, GAO has been asked to conduct a review of the process for awarding the COVID-19 Public Education Campaign, as well as its source of funding.

This report outlines, among other things, the roles of the ASPA, FDA, and NIH in running the COVID-19 public education campaign, and how the ASPA paid the campaign awards.

To carry out this work, GAO reviewed and analyzed interagency agreements, award filings, related funding documents, and products developed for the public education campaign; federal laws and regulations; applicable agency guidelines; and agency email communications regarding the campaign. GAO also interviewed relevant agency officials and contractors and received written responses to questions regarding the funding used for the campaign.

The GAO provided a draft of this report to HHS for review and comment. HHS said it appreciated the opportunity to review the project and had no comment.

For more information, contact Alyssa M. Hundrup at (202) 512-7114 or [email protected]


Comments are closed.