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Health Department ignored ‘red flags’ in Philly Fighting COVID partnership, inspector general says

The department's failure to properly vet PFC placed the city “at great risk,” the report said.

Andrei Doroshin, CEO of Philly Fighting COVID, during a news conference at the Pennsylvania Convention Center on Jan. 8. Also shown are Councilman Bobby Henon, (right) and Mayor Jim Kenney.
Andrei Doroshin, CEO of Philly Fighting COVID, during a news conference at the Pennsylvania Convention Center on Jan. 8. Also shown are Councilman Bobby Henon, (right) and Mayor Jim Kenney.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

The Public Health Department failed to properly vet Philly Fighting COVID before allowing the nascent group to run the city’s first mass vaccination clinic in early January, despite documented warning signs, according to initial results from an ongoing Office of the Inspector General investigation.

“They ignored numerous red flags that should have been considered before asking PFC to run a mass vaccination clinic,” Inspector General Alexander DeSantis wrote in the report released Monday, placing the city “at great risk.”

The findings, based on 47 interviews, complaints, emails, and other documents, detail issues with Philly Fighting COVID’s operations that include billing discrepancies, questions about the company’s financial solvency, data-reporting problems, warnings from the group’s chief medical officer as he resigned, equity and communication failures at testing clinics, and CEO Andrei Doroshin’s “lack of professionalism.”

The report details additional alleged instances of PFC staff mismanaging vaccines and inoculating friends and family. Doroshin did not speak to investigators and did not respond to a request for comment from The Inquirer.

Philadelphia will begin a more thorough vetting process for coronavirus vaccine providers, officials announced Monday in response to the report Mayor Jim Kenney ordered during the fallout from the failed partnership.

The report did not recommend any disciplinary action to department employees. Although it described Health Commissioner Thomas Farley as “disconnected and uninformed” about the department’s relationship with PFC, it stated he did not violate any policy while delegating the vaccine rollout to his deputy.

“The Department of Public Health, acting in a hurry, made a bad decision to partner with Philly Fighting COVID,” Farley said during a news conference Monday.

The partnership exploded on Jan. 25, after The Inquirer questioned the city about a change in the group’s privacy policy that allowed it to sell personal data through a for-profit arm. The deputy health commissioner resigned days later after records obtained by The Inquirer showed she gave the group an unfair advantage in a city bidding process.

The damaging revelations broke trust residents had in the government to safely, efficiently, and equitably distribute vaccine. The national fallout from the city’s noncontractual partnership with Philly Fighting COVID led City Council members to pass legislation increasing transparency and oversight of vaccine distributors.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is now running a mass vaccination clinic at the Convention Center, the site previously operated by Philly Fighting COVID.

Farley said his department would vet providers to understand their corporate structure, ensure they have prior experience giving vaccinations, and check that they have no prior complaints for illegal, improper, or unethical actions. Other reforms include training city employees in contracting procedures for coronavirus-related contracts, and expanding the health department’s vaccine team, which had already changed in the wake of the Philly Fighting COVID controversy.

» READ MORE: The city trusted a group of ‘college kids’ to lead its vaccine rollout. But Philly Fighting COVID was full of red flags from the start.

Kenney also defended Farley, despite his department’s decision to partner with Philly Fighting COVID.

“I believe his sage advice and guidance have saved hundreds if not thousands of lives,” Kenney said.

The inspector general’s report paints a picture of miscommunication, with one Public Health Department team experiencing many “red flags” during the group’s testing operations, including PFC logging the lowest data collection rate of all city testing providers, capturing the required information for an average of 32% of tests given. The group also stopped offering COVID-19 testing in January, prior to the end of its contract, despite more than a dozen upcoming scheduled events.

Health department staffers who worked with Doroshin for the testing contract also described him as “unprofessional and rather aggressive,” according to the report. Yet, these concerns did not reach leadership. Meanwhile, a separate health department team worked closely with PFC on vaccinations.

“Unfortunately, there was an apparent lack of communication between the Health Department’s COVID Containment and Disease Control groups,” the report states. “By November, Containment’s testing team was well aware of Doroshin’s reputation and there were a number of negative issues that were already known.”

The report also highlights one “serious red flag that should not have been ignored” — PFC’s chief medical officer resigning days before the mass vaccine clinic while raising concerns to the health department about the group’s leadership and stability.

“There is little evidence to suggest that anyone at the Health Department conducted additional research or reconsidered the relationship ... and the department instead moved forward with the scheduled clinics,” the report states.

The inspector general’s investigation also found additional instances of Philly Fighting COVID mismanaging doses at its mass vaccine clinics on Jan. 16 and Jan. 23. The report details how one witness saw nonmedical volunteers, unqualified to inoculate others, administering doses to other staffers. PFC staff also invited friends and family to the clinic for leftover vaccines, and Doroshin took doses off-site, the report says.

Health department employees, including Farley, confirmed to investigators that PFC was authorized to administer doses outside of the eligible group if there were leftovers so no dose would be discarded, according to the report. The report does not say how many doses were used in this manner.

“We understand that this incident really has hurt the reputation of the Philadelphia Department of Public Health and we’re working very hard right now to regain that trust,” Farley said. “I hope that ... when most Philadelphia residents are vaccinated and COVID is under control we will have earned back that trust.”