Philadelphia handed its mass vaccination effort to a 22-year-old and now the City Council has questions

Why would Philadelphia hand their mass vaccination effort over to a group run by a 22-year old grad student? That’s what the City Council wants to know after multiple reports of problems which started when the group called Philly Fighting COVID (PFC) set up a pre-registration website to collect information from tens of thousands of people. Local PBS station WHYY reported that site was not approved or monitored by the city even though users may have thought it was.

The landing page for the PFC sign-up bears an official city seal, offering a sense of legitimacy for an otherwise unfamiliar organization. But that seal is actually the official insignia of City Council — which denied giving any approval for Philly Fighting COVID to use its branding.

“Council did not approve the use of its seal on this website,” said Joe Grace, communications director for Council President Darrell Clarke. “We’ve reached out to the organization’s representatives, asking them to remove the Council seal. Council has no role in this organization.”

PFC was formed by a Drexel grad student named Andrei Doroshin who first gained attention for using 3D printers to print face shields last spring. After that, PFC set up COVID testing sites around the city. At the time the group was organized as a non-profit.

But in December the group’s priorities changed. Doroshin launched a for-profit arm and planned to set up a mass vaccination site. PFC left the city-funded testing sites behind, leaving some people in the lurch.

On Friday, Jan. 8, CEO Andrei Doroshin spoke at the city’s first mass vaccination clinic, which the Philadelphia Department of Public Health had authorized Philly Fighting COVID to run. There, Doroshin outlined ambitious plans to add two new drop-in testing sites and also expand to offer free rapid testing for all city residents.

Over the weekend, the young start-up exec had apparently reversed course — and left community leaders in the lurch.

“They completely ghosted us,” said Cean James, pastor of Salt & Light church in Southwest Philadelphia, who had a planned series of testing events he said the group abruptly abandoned.

It turns out there may be a very good reason for the group’s sudden shift from testing to vaccinations. Testing was city-funded and a money loser, but with vaccinations things promised to be different:

Approved for an allocation of the city’s limited vaccine supply, the 9-month-old start-up could begin billing health insurance companies after months of unprofitable testing operations.

We know profit was on Doroshin’s mind because former volunteers said he talked about it. He also took the group from non-profit status to for profit status, apparently without informing the city at the time. That was the last straw. The city ended its relationship with PFC after learning about it from news reports:

“We have recently been made aware of a change in Philly Fighting COVID’s corporate status that took place without our knowledge, from nonprofit to for-profit,” said Health Department spokesperson Jim Garrow…

Five former volunteers and staff members at PFC, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Doroshin and other executives openly talked about profiting off the vaccine in recent months.

“They weren’t even bragging about how they were helping the community,” said a former volunteer. “They were bragging about how rich they were going to get.”

Before the city cut off its relationship with PFC, the group hosted two fairly successful mass vaccination efforts on two successive weekends. But even there some problems were reported. Elderly people who had confirmed appointments wound up waiting in line for hours only to be told the group had run out of vaccine.

“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,’” said Jillian Horn, a Callowhill resident who tried to get inoculated this weekend.

But the site wasn’t out of vaccine, at least not completely:

Katrina Lipinsky, a 29-year-old registered nurse who was on site that day, said she saw Philly Fighting COVID CEO Andrei Doroshin pack a bundle of unused vaccines into his bag shortly after 7 p.m.

“They ended the day with a significant number of unused vaccines,” Lipinsky said. “Andrei walked pretty openly from the vaccine area over to his belongings and packed maybe 10 to 15 in his bag with CDC record cards.”

An hour later, a photo of Doroshin appeared on Snapchat showing him about to give someone a dose of the vaccine. It appeared to have been taken inside a home. Someone claimed Doroshin was at a small party that night but said no doses of the vaccine had been given out.

PFC won’t be getting any more doses of vaccine from the city. The group released a statement yesterday which was part explanation and part apology, but only for leaving the testing sites in the lurch:

Finally, here’s a Today show interview from two weeks ago when the group was riding high. “We took the entire model and just through it out the window and we said to hell with all of that. We’re going to completely build a new model that’s based—like a factory,” Doroshin said. The effort really did seem to have a lot going for it. My own impression is that, at some point, the desire to become the Elon Musk of the Philly COVID response just became a little too strong and that led to some bad decision making.