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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.

Philadelphia’s vaccine rollout became a national cautionary tale. Now, city officials are scrambling to rebuild public trust — the foundation of any successful vaccination campaign.

Andrei Doroshin, Philly Fighting COVID CEO, talks to the media at his Fishtown apartment lobby in Philadelphia, Pa. Friday, January 29, 2021
Andrei Doroshin, Philly Fighting COVID CEO, talks to the media at his Fishtown apartment lobby in Philadelphia, Pa. Friday, January 29, 2021Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

Andrei Doroshin stood in the lobby of his Fishtown apartment complex Friday — the very place where his dream of building a coronavirus vaccination empire first came to life — and prepared to address the media once again.

Two weeks after national outlets touted him as the “22-year-old whiz kid” running the city’s vaccination efforts, the disgraced CEO of Philly Fighting COVID was determined to convince the public that he was not the villain. Five days after the health department severed ties with his organization running the largest mass vaccination effort in the city, and one day after he admitted to taking home four vaccine doses for his friend and girlfriend, the Drexel University graduate student stood before reporters, demanding the resignation of Philadelphia’s top health official.

Doroshin didn’t wear a mask. He said he had already been vaccinated and he didn’t need it, despite health officials’ pleas for vaccinated people to continue wearing masks.

He acknowledged he was young and had no medical qualifications, but claimed his group was the only one who presented a mass vaccination plan to the city.

“Where are all the credentialed people?” he asked, exasperated.

Long before the city cut ties with Doroshin’s group, many wondered the same thing, and why Philadelphia entrusted a group of self-described “college kids” with the largest public health initiative in recent memory.

In the end, it was the fine print that brought down PFC. On Monday, the city’s Department of Public Health abruptly ended its partnership with the group after it said the organization failed to disclose that residents’ personal information could be sold, and that it presented itself as a nonprofit even after establishing a for-profit arm, called Vax Populi.

“We shouldn’t have gone into a relationship with them in the first place,” Health Commissioner Thomas Farley told The Inquirer.

On Saturday night, Deputy Healthy Commissioner Caroline Johnson, who had worked closely with Doroshin, resigned after records obtained by The Inquirer showed she gave him an advantage in a city bidding process by providing a suggested budget number.

» READ MORE: Philadelphia deputy health commissioner resigns following Philly Fighting COVID controversy

Johnson sent a similar message to the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, a group of three dozen medical experts offering community testing and vaccination, in an email that was provided to The Inquirer by health department spokesperson James Garrow.

Doroshin said that he never intended to sell personal data and that he told Johnson about Vax Populi in early January. But more information about Doroshin, his group, and allegations of mishandling vaccines arose. By Thursday, he had admitted to taking home the vaccines. By Friday, WHYY reported that his group had provided at-home testing for the family of Councilmember Bobby Henon.

» READ MORE: ‘We demand answers,’ Council members say as Philly Fighting COVID CEO admits taking vaccine doses

The red flags were there all along: PFC had abruptly abandoned testing community members. Doroshin didn’t have any medical or public health certifications, and neither did many other undergraduates running the organization. The top medical staffer listed on its website was a Main Line fertility specialist. Young, healthy Philadelphians not yet eligible for the vaccine easily secured appointments.

The vaccine rollout across the nation has been stymied by a limited federal supply of vaccines, mistrust of the medical system, disagreements over who should get inoculated first, and no infrastructure to efficiently schedule and deliver injections to eligible people. The patchwork response happening in Philadelphia, and nationwide, gave PFC an opportunity to step in.

Philadelphia’s vaccine rollout became a national cautionary tale. Now, city officials are scrambling to rebuild public trust — the foundation of any successful vaccination campaign.

‘Golden ticket to med school’

PFC sold its largely unpaid workforce on a dream: Be part of history.

When the organization stopped manufacturing face shields and shifted to free COVID testing, it recruited a handful of health-care workers and dozens of undergraduate volunteers to staff its testing site at The Fillmore, a shuttered Fishtown concert venue.

PFC’s volunteers were taken by its stated mission of “serving the underserved,” according to interviews with more than a dozen former workers, nearly all of whom asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution and jeopardizing future job searches.

The volunteers, many of them pre-med, worked five-hour shifts at the testing sites, labeling test tubes, checking patients in, and taking vitals.

“We got a lot of attention,” said former COO Victor Shugart.

It was suddenly very cool and very glamorous to be running a testing site. One staffer included his position on his online dating profile. Others added it to their Instagram bios.

One employee saw his experience with PFC as the “golden ticket to med school.” The pay was just above minimum wage — $10 an hour — but it was about “the mission,” he said. He remembered that at the end of the first day of testing, Doroshin gathered the staff, and they cried together.

‘You need money to make money’

At the helm of the team was Doroshin. He was smart, charming, and knew how to say all the right things — making big promises, giving pep talks, and offering future promotions.

The 22-year-old’s resumé boasts of his C-suite endeavors: CEO of a real estate firm; CBO of a biomedical tech organization; a filmmaker. In high school, he says, he attempted to change Southern California air-quality legislation through a nonprofit called “Invisible Sea.” Invisible Sea, however, raised only $684 of its $50,000 goal.

And he laughed when asked about his overstated achievements in an interview. “I’m from Drexel, we all do that,” he said. “Who didn’t when they were 22 to pump their resumé up?”

Behind the scenes, he acted more like the college student he is now claiming to be, rather than the leader of a public health movement he pitched to the city. He used Venmo to pay and reimburse PFC staffers, often labeling the payment with vulgar language. He promoted friends and family, and abruptly fired those who questioned his vision or authority.

He even used an Instagram account for his bulldog, Winston, to mock the pandemic. A November photo posted to the account’s “story” showed Doroshin and a friend smiling inside a building with their masks pulled down, captioned, “Don’t wear a mask. #COVIDIsAHoaX.” He insisted this was a joke.

And the mission Doroshin sold his staff — and the city — largely didn’t come to pass. Though PFC secured a more than $194,000 city contract promising to provide testing to low-income, Black and brown communities, its site at the Fillmore did not appear to serve those people, former workers said. PFC acted as a concierge testing service for restaurants, a film crew, and even Henon’s family. It did run pop-up testing sites in low-income neighborhoods around the city but abruptly shut down when its vaccination effort began.

Asked if he made money off of PFC’s testing sites, Doroshin changed his story several times. He told reporters at his apartment that he did not make money while running the sites. “I would have loved to have gotten a Bentley,” he joked. “I love Bentleys, man, but no.”

» READ MORE: City drops Philly Fighting COVID as vaccination partner after it failed to disclose for-profit arm

Later, in an interview, he said he paid himself a small stipend to cover rent and food, though he declined to specify how much.

Two former workers said Doroshin and the rest of the executive team bragged about how they’d get rich off the vaccination effort. Doroshin hoped to bill insurance about $20 per patient for administering the vaccine and bring in private investors. This is on top of hourly pay — a budget submitted to the city showed the director of the site would make $60 an hour or $720 a day.

“I was bragging about how much money we were gonna make to support the operation, expand the operation,” Doroshin told The Inquirer. “You need money to make money. You need money to open vaccine clinics.”

Mass vaccinations, missing doses

In November, PFC hosted a vaccination training run by a nurse-practitioner. Meanwhile, Doroshin was presenting his grand plan to the city.

When the health department received its first batch of vaccine doses, health-care systems were focusing on their own staff first, Farley said. But home health workers unaffiliated with hospitals were also eligible for the vaccine, and officials wanted to quickly find a solution to reach them.

The city did not see Doroshin’s lack of medical expertise as disqualifying him as a partner, Farley said.

PFC secured the Convention Center site — and the health department threw its support, and thousands of vaccine doses, behind it.

City officials promoted PFC’s registration sign-up. Later, the site added a privacy policy that allowed it to sell personal information. “I’m guessing we did not check that in advance,” Farley said about the policy. Because there was no formal contract, no city funding was given to PFC for the vaccination site, but the city seal appeared next to the PFC logo, which left many patients with the impression the site was city-run.

In a grand opening attended by Mayor Jim Kenney, Johnson, and Council members Henon and Cindy Bass, PFC was declared the largest mass vaccination site in the city.

But those seeking vaccinations quickly saw issues. Lynn Newbould, a health clinical researcher from Newtown, told The Inquirer she was vaccinated before intake was through. The needle was abruptly pulled from her arm, and now she wonders whether she was given the full dose. She reported her experience to Moderna.

» READ MORE: Philly Fighting COVID’s founder met with City Council about vaccines in November. No one asked about his health-care credentials.

A week later, her husband, 68 and also a health researcher, got a text message from PFC canceling his vaccination due to a residency requirement.

That same day, Doroshin would later admit on the Today show, he took home four unused vaccine doses. He said it was a last-ditch attempt to make sure the leftover doses didn’t go to waste.

At the Convention Center, Doroshin and PFC had the support of Johnson, the deputy health commissioner. When Doroshin called for Farley’s dismissal at the news conference, he endorsed Johnson as a replacement.

Doroshin had lofty goals for the future of PFC. In his application to the city, he budgeted nearly $800,000 for an eight-month lease for the Convention Center site, and estimated that running a six-month clinic to vaccinate more than 500,000 people would cost more than $8.5 million.

Johnson advised him, in emails obtained by The Inquirer, to start “conservatively” with a $500,000 bid..

Although the requests for proposals had been publicly posted, officials are not permitted to selectively encourage people to apply. The department was unaware of this email until questions from The Inquirer.

Philly Fighting COVID’s application ended up being one of nine submitted to the city as of Friday for a contract to administer vaccinations. But, Garrow said, officials haven’t reviewed applications yet because they have not secured funding.

Still, Garrow said in a statement that “providing a dollar amount to some but not all applicants would present an unfair advantage to those applicants and violate our best practices.” The incident has been referred to the City of Philadelphia Inspector General.

Doroshin said Vax Populi was finalizing lease agreements with Lincoln Financial Field and Citizens Bank Park, with Councilmembers Henon and Mark Squilla listed as references. Doroshin also said he told Johnson of plans to move to a for-profit venture.

» READ MORE: Philly Fighting COVID partnership was ‘a mistake,’ health commissioner says, as Mayor Kenney calls for new vaccination clinics

The day the city severed ties with PFC, Johnson e-mailed Doroshin about what she called an “abrupt and one-sided decision” that was “made at the highest levels of government.”

Even after ending the partnership, Kenney, Farley, and Johnson maintained early last week that the group was doing well running the mass site.

‘Who advocated on their behalf?’

The news of PFC’s alleged misdoings sparked outrage across the city. City councilmembers and state leaders called for hearings into how the partnership came to be.

Some saw the bungled partnership as an example of systemic racism, comparing it to officials’ reluctance last spring to partner with the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium.

Councilmember Katherine Gilmore Richardson said the pain of losing residents’ trust in the city’s pandemic response is only magnified by the work the Black Doctors Consortium was doing to gain it.

At the consortium, Ala Stanford, a board-certified surgeon in charge of the consortium, noted it’s required that “anyone who is sticking a needle in someone’s arm has a license to do it.”

“It’s about trust,” Stanford, who has been practicing medicine for more than two decades, said. “It’s being empathetic, it’s looking a person in their eye and noticing that this is really tough for them. … There’s a certain level of maturity, as well.”

Councilmember Cherelle L. Parker noted that PFC initially received 7,000 vaccine doses, while the consortium was given 2,500. “Who advocated on their behalf?” she asked.

» READ MORE: Experts worry that Philly Fighting COVID fuels mistrust in medicine, especially for Black and brown communities

The city has promised to do right by residents. During a news conference after the severed partnership, Farley assured reporters that the city will find a solution and said that the issue at hand is how many vaccines the city acquires.

Kenney doubled down on his support of Farley in a letter Friday but said he was “disappointed” by the partnership with PFC. He also requested that the health department provide increased vaccine doses to groups across the city, including the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium.

Doroshin said he has nothing to hide, and isn’t worried about the future. He’s already planning his next business venture: building a national vaccination registration software.

At his Fishtown apartment Friday, Doroshin said that amid death threats, he’s leaving town for a bit. He also asked his entire staff to resign. But he doesn’t plan to.

“This is my fight to fight,” he said.