The group offered a partial apology Tuesday while defending the switch to for-profit status, and CEO Andrei Doroshin told Philadelphia magazine that claims he had helped himself to leftover vaccine doses were “baseless.”
Just a few weeks ago, Philly Fighting COVID was receiving glowing coverage from the likes of NBC’s “Today.” The group had a compelling story: Doroshin, a graduate student at Drexel University, helped orchestrate an effort to use 3-D printers to make free face shields for hospital workers at the start of the pandemic. By summer, he and his friends were running their own pop-up testing sites citywide.
But as Philadelphia magazine reported, the group’s “executive team” lacked anyone with a medical degree or advanced degree in public health. Doroshin himself listed a résumé that included stints teaching a high school film class, producing videos of people longboarding and practicing parkour, and founding a nonprofit that, according to Philadelphia magazine, “mostly consisted of a meme-heavy Twitter account, some minor community lobbying, and a fundraiser with a $50,000 goal that netted $684.”
Speaking to “Today,” Doroshin said that his lack of a traditional public health background allowed him to “think a little differently” and speed up the vaccination process. In another interview, he expressed hopes of setting up a McDonald’s-like franchise and suggested that best practices for administering vaccine doses “can go out the window.”
Philly Fighting COVID’s young, entrepreneurial leaders also openly talked about the potential for profit, one former volunteer told WHYY: “They were bragging about how rich they were going to get.” Another volunteer said the group’s executives “said they were gonna be millionaires” by billing insurance providers for administering vaccine doses that Philly Fighting COVID got free. (Doroshin has disputed these allegations.)
The city’s partnership with the group began drawing scrutiny last week after WHYY reported that Philly Fighting COVID had abruptly backed out of plans to host coronavirus testing clinics in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods and “completely ghosted” community leaders, as one pastor put it. Then, on Saturday, dozens of seniors lined up for hours to be vaccinated at the Pennsylvania Convention Center only to be turned away because the group had accidentally allowed too many people to sign up.
“There were literally 85-year-old, 90-year-old people standing there in tears, with printed appointment confirmations, saying: ‘I don’t understand why I can’t get vaccinated. I’m 85,’ ” one witness told the station.
A registered nurse who volunteered with the group categorized it as a “disaster of an operation.” Katrina Lipinsky told the Philadelphia Inquirer and WHYY that she wasn’t asked for her medical credentials before she began administering vaccine doses, and that plenty of unused doses were left over after seniors were turned away on Saturday. She alleged that she saw Doroshin place between 10 and 15 of those doses in his bag and take them with him when he left.
The 22-year-old CEO attended a small gathering with friends that night, according to WHYY, and a photo that circulated on Snapchat appeared to show him “getting ready to administer an unspecified syringe” to an individual in a private home.
Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said at a Tuesday briefing that the allegations were “very disturbing” if true, and that any leftover vaccine doses should have been returned to the city. He also said that “in retrospect” it was a mistake to partner with the group.
The city announced on Monday that it would no longer work with Philly Fighting COVID for coronavirus testing or vaccine distribution, a day before the allegations of mishandled vaccine doses surfaced. The decision to sever ties was made after health officials became aware that the group had switched to for-profit status, Farley said Tuesday.
In a Tuesday statement, Doroshin called the inclusion of that language a “mistake” and said it had been removed. “We never have and never would sell, share, or disseminate any data we collected as it would be in violation of HIPAA rules,” he wrote.
Doroshin also apologized for “any miscommunications” as Philly Fighting COVID switched its focus from testing to vaccines, and said that he never intended to “cause confusion or harm.” The group lacked the resources to handle both testing and vaccinations at the same time, he said, adding that becoming a for-profit company was necessary for “scaling up.”
But elected officials still have questions. On Tuesday, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner (D) asked anyone with knowledge of potential criminal activity to contact his office, while Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D) invited Philadelphians who felt they had been misled by Philly Fighting COVID to open a complaint. Multiple city council members have called for an investigation, the Inquirer reported, and want to know why inexperienced college students were placed in charge of such a crucial task in the first place.
Notably, everyone on Philly Fighting COVID’s executive team is White, reported Philadelphia magazine — a fact that has raised eyebrows in a city that has struggled to vaccinate its substantial Black population, (Philadelphia is roughly 44 percent Black, but only 12 percent of vaccine doses have gone to Black people so far.) The city is also home to the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, which pioneered one of the earliest efforts to conduct coronavirus testing in communities disproportionately affected by the virus.
“If there was anybody poised and ready to do this, it was us,” founder Ala Stanford told the magazine, adding that the city had suggested she team up with Philly Fighting COVID to administer vaccine shots. “I happen to have been a doctor for 23 years, longer than some of these kids have been living, but I need these white kids to teach me how to do it?”