Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley has said the city’s failed vaccine partnership with Philly Fighting COVID, a collaboration that became a national embarrassment, was formed “in a hurry.”
But more than 200 emails obtained by The Inquirer suggest something different: They show the health department was closely planning with the group for months before the January launch of its first mass vaccination clinic. And they included red flags about the city’s partnership with a self-described group of “college kids.”
Among other things, they show Andrei Doroshin, Philly Fighting COVID’s CEO and a 22-year-old Drexel University graduate student with no experience in public health or medicine, mocking or questioning Ala Stanford, a physician who founded and runs the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, a nonprofit that offers testing and vaccination in underserved neighborhoods; acknowledging that his group sought to administer flu shots as “training wheels” before the coronavirus vaccine was ready; and pleading with city officials to improve the optics or messaging about their agreement with help from Councilmember Bobby Henon’s office.
That behind-the-scenes relationship “gave him access to officials and discussions and opportunities he otherwise wouldn’t have,” Inspector General Alexander DeSantis said. ”Philly Fighting COVID had an opportunity that other organizations did not have.”
The partnership collapsed in January, after The Inquirer raised questions about Philly Fighting COVID’s ability to sell personal data of patients, and just three days after a city official had written in an email that the health department planned to continue supplying the group with an increasing number of vaccines “in future weeks to months.”
Health department spokesperson James Garrow said last week that the department stands by its description that the vaccine plans with Philly Fighting COVID were made “in a hurry.”
“The Department of Public Health has been ‘in a hurry’ to combat COVID-19 since it began to threaten Philadelphia in February 2020, working long hours and making decisions quickly to respond to the constantly changing emergency,” he said.
City officials met so frequently with the group, he said, because it was the only one requesting that access. “Had other groups asked for such meetings,” Garrow said, “we would have happily complied.”
Philly Fighting COVID, like all other vaccine providers in Philadelphia, didn’t have a formal or enforceable agreement in place with the city, although Doroshin budgeted $8.5 million to run the clinic for six months, according to a funding application obtained by The Inquirer.
His group received a $194,000 coronavirus testing contract but never was paid for vaccinations. Still, after the city ended the partnership, and under pressure from Council, officials said they would work to vet all vaccine providers and develop memorandums of understanding to have enforceable agreements.
But those potential changes are still under review, Garrow said. That means Philadelphia remains limited in its formal ability to control or enforce terms of these partnerships.
Without a contract, the city only had assurances from Philly Fighting COVID.
“We will not let you down,” Doroshin wrote in an email to a health official on Christmas Eve about plans for his group’s mass clinic at the Convention Center.
Working closely with the city
Doroshin did not respond last week to requests for comment on his emails with city officials. And many of them come off as innocuous and routine correspondence between a fledgling contractor in city government.
Two weeks after Philly Fighting COVID had signed a contract to receive city funding for coronavirus testing in early August, Doroshin turned his attention to vaccines.
A city health official working on COVID-19 testing contracts wrote an Aug. 18 email introducing him to Amber Tirmal, a colleague managing vaccine planning. A few days later, Doroshin emailed Tirmal to thank her for talking with him and for offering him a seat on the city’s Vaccine Advisory Committee.
“It is good to hear that we are ready to get into the business of getting the city vaccinated,” Doroshin wrote. His organization, he wrote, was “prepping a few different plans to share.”
Doroshin did not explain his public health qualifications to the city in the emails, as he pitched his group’s ability to carry out large-scale vaccinations. In one late November email, Doroshin told the health department he was preparing for “this roller coaster” of vaccine distribution by providing flu vaccines “as our ‘training wheels.’” The email did not offer additional details about the group’s flu vaccine program.
The next month, Garrow, the health department communications director, reached out to Doroshin to share an internal planning document that detailed strategies for vaccine distribution.
In a list of “special groups to consider engaging with,” the 19-page document included Penn Medicine, Temple Health, and Jefferson Health. Philly Fighting COVID was listed alongside them, the only organization explicitly mentioned that was not a well-established health group.
“Hello!” Garrow wrote to Doroshin. “Happy to talk about how this will fit into your strategy at some point.” Garrow said last week that Philly Fighting COVID was the only group listed because it was the only one that had completed a vaccine provider agreement.
Criticizing the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium
When Philadelphia began receiving vaccines for health-care workers, Doroshin reacted to a news release about the city inoculating the medical staff of the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium.
“This is hilarious,” Doroshin wrote on Dec. 15 to Joshu Harris, the legislative director for Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, who represents Point Breeze and other sections of South Philadelphia. He also questioned the preparedness of Stanford, the doctor who founded the group.
“When asked on the vaccine advisory board committee if she had the infrastructure ready to do vaccines she didn’t know what to do and asked if paper forms were fine, which they clearly weren’t and she never read the data reporting requirements,” Doroshin wrote. “This is purely a PR stunt. We will reach out to them and see if they need logistical assistance.”
It would be a “smart move” to partner with Stanford, Harris wrote, adding, “She has earned a lot of goodwill and political capital.”
Harris said in an interview that his office was “taking the health department’s cue” that Philly Fighting COVID was a city partner. He said he viewed Doroshin’s email about the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium as “aggressive and rude” because he saw Stanford as qualified and doing an exceptional job improving access to coronavirus testing in underserved communities.
When the city suggested on Jan. 11 that the two groups partner for Martin Luther King Jr. Day and run a mass vaccination clinic to “get into the African American community in Philly,” Stanford rejected the concept — and Philly Fighting COVID’s approach to vaccinations.
“Where the vaccine is given and by whom matters,” she said.
Members of City Council have since criticized the Kenney administration for prioritizing Philly Fighting COVID while groups such as the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium were better qualified and better equipped to equitably distribute vaccines.
The city recently announced that the consortium, which holds vaccine clinics in Black and brown neighborhoods, will receive funding for vaccinations, and Stanford said last week that her group is “an integral part of getting the city of Philadelphia vaccinated and back to a new normal.”
The backing of Councilmember Henon
After questions emerged in January about the city’s association with the group — Henon, who represents Northeast Philadelphia in City Council, came to its defense.
There were internal arguments among members of City Council over Philly Fighting COVID’s use of the Council logo on its site. In an email, Henon defended the use of the logo to the Council president’s office, and his chief of staff, Courtney Voss, emailed Doroshin to tell him Henon had done so.
“He will explain that to anyone else who asks,” she wrote.
Doroshin forwarded that email to Garrow, who replied: “Holy s---, Andrei. You have my sympathies.”
Voss also emailed Garrow, questioning statements to the media that distanced the health department from Philly Fighting COVID.
“When you say they’re not affiliated it makes it feel like a weird ass Egyptian prince money scam,” she wrote.
Voss said last week that Henon — who also received coronavirus testing for his family at his home in December — “actively partnered” with Philly Fighting COVID to push for testing and vaccination sites in his district. And she said much of the blame for the controversy over the group lies with the city.
“Instead of fully owning their failures, the [health] department largely shifted blame to Philly Fighting COVID, an organization that certainly deserves blame, but perhaps not for the reasons publicly outlined by the department,” she said.
Doroshin had also pushed city officials to stop distancing themselves from his group.
“We also think that it isn’t a good idea for Dr. Farley to say that the city doesn’t have a relationship with Philly Fighting COVID due to the obvious contradiction that this presents with our efforts so far,” Doroshin wrote in a Jan. 19 email to Garrow.
Garrow replied to Doroshin, insinuating the city’s partnership with Philly Fighting COVID would be solidified in the future.
“We can definitely do more to tighten up our messaging and I can work towards that,” Garrow wrote. “Once these agreements and partnerships [are] more formalized this will be not even be an issue.”
Six days later, the city ended the partnership. That decision, an email stated, was “made at the highest levels of government.”