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Philly Fighting COVID got a city contract while groups emphasizing racial equity didn’t

Advocates point to the Philly Fighting COVID controversy as a glaring example of the city’s blind spots in vetting providers and ensuring equity in testing and vaccine distribution.

Voffee Jabateh, CEO and executive director of the African Cultural Alliance of North America, inside the health clinic at the group's office in Philadelphia this month. Its proposal for city funding to provide COVID-19 testing was denied.
Voffee Jabateh, CEO and executive director of the African Cultural Alliance of North America, inside the health clinic at the group's office in Philadelphia this month. Its proposal for city funding to provide COVID-19 testing was denied.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Voffee Jabateh wanted to provide coronavirus testing for Philadelphia’s community of African immigrants and refugees.

Twice last year, he applied for city funding. Jabateh requested about $113,000 for the African Cultural Alliance of North America and pitched a plan to distribute information in different African languages and dialects at hair-braiding salons, grocery stores, laundromats, and churches.

He was turned down.

So Jabateh watched with anger as Philadelphia’s relationship with Philly Fighting COVID, a start-up run by a mostly white, self-described group of “college kids” with minimal health-care qualifications, imploded. The group had gotten a $194,000 city contract for COVID-19 testing and a seat on the city’s vaccine advisory board, and it ran a mass vaccine clinic at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. The partnership ended amid questions about the group’s for-profit arm that could sell residents’ data, leading to political finger-pointing and embarrassing national headlines.

“We told them, ‘We are nurses, we have doctors, we have a small clinic that we have developed over the years that can do that,’ ” said Jabateh, the CEO and executive director of the African Cultural Alliance of North America. “Other than racism, what was it that made them not to come to us? It can’t be qualification. It can’t be our inability to respond to the application. It can’t be anything other than someone was not considering us as equal player in the game.”

The alliance was one of 13 groups rejected for city testing funding, according to a list of applicants provided by the city. At least one other rejected group said it also sought to improve health-care racial equity and help an otherwise underserved community.

The city committee that reviews proposals is committed to racial equity and still has funding available, city spokesperson Mike Dunn said. Philadelphia has provided $10.7 million for testing to hospitals, health centers, and groups like Philly Fighting COVID and the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, according to a list provided by the Health Department. Several organizations received more than $1 million in testing funds, including the Black doctors’ group.

» 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.

But advocates and activists point to the Philly Fighting COVID controversy as a glaring example of the city’s blind spots in vetting providers and ensuring racial equity in the distribution of testing and now vaccines. A group of 21 organizations signed a Jan. 29 letter to Philadelphia leaders, demanding “accountability for the dangerous and racist partnership” with Philly Fighting COVID.

“We refuse to stand idly by as our lives continue to be put in jeopardy by the incompetence fueled with bias and racism,” the letter said, “and are available to work with the city to ensure Black and [brown] communities’ health becomes a priority for the City of Philadelphia.”

The continuing frustration comes as the city prepares to hand out funding for vaccination sites, political tension over the issue simmers between Mayor Jim Kenney and City Council, and impatience grows among residents waiting for shots.

Health Commissioner Thomas Farley has called the partnership with Philly Fighting COVID a “mistake” and acknowledged the city has so far failed to meet its racial equity goals in vaccine distribution. Only about 17% of vaccinations have gone to Black residents, who make up more than 40% of the city’s population. Since the Health Department ended its partnership with Philly Fighting COVID last month, the political tussle has turned to whether or not to use sports stadiums for mass vaccine sites, with some Council members pushing for that and the administration citing it as a counter to equity considerations.

Following the scandal — which included the resignation of the deputy health commissioner — the city canceled its request for proposals to fund vaccination sites. A revised one issued last week included a more explicit emphasis on racial diversity, language barriers, and access for people with disabilities.

Mike Hinson, president and chief operating officer of Self Inc., a nonprofit that provides emergency housing and mental health services, also sought coronavirus testing funds.

But after multiple revisions, the group’s application was rejected last month. Hinson said the Health Department didn’t explain why, and he moved on.

Weeks later, watching the Philly Fighting COVID fallout, Hinson thought: “Here we go again.”

“Someone with that lack of experience, that he has a seat at the table to make a determination for a majority Black and brown city about how to proceed with vaccinations, I don’t have any words,” Hinson said, referring to Andrei Doroshin, the group’s 22-year-old CEO, who admitted giving four vaccine doses to friends.

“That to me, again, is a very clear example of systematic bias, racism, and discrimination,” said Hinson, who signed the Jan. 29 letter to Farley, Managing Director Tumar Alexander, and members of City Council.

Doroshin has defended his group as the only one that presented the city with a mass vaccination plan and maintains that it never intended to sell personal data.

The city had specified that groups seeking testing funding must target “underserved populations across Philadelphia.”

“While we understand that the public has questions about what transpired with Philly Fighting COVID, it is important to note that no organization was denied funding because PFC (or any other group) received funding for testing,” Dunn said.

Anna Perng, cofounder of the Chinatown Disability Advocacy Project, said she was alarmed by Philly Fighting COVID’s vaccine registration website.

The site was widely confused as a city-sponsored vaccine signup when it launched in January. Perng, a mother of two children with learning disabilities, noted it was only available in English and omitted Down syndrome from the list of medical conditions that put people at risk for severe cases of COVID-19.

She emailed city officials but heard back from Doroshin instead. “We are doing our best — but you must understand that this process will never be perfect,” Doroshin wrote in a Jan. 9 email.

“My problem is not that I want it to be perfect,” Perng said last month. “I want it to be equitable.”

John Chin, executive director of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp., also raised concerns about equity as he tried to help On Lok House, an affordable housing complex for seniors in Chinatown, get vaccines.

It took about two weeks of emailing with the Health Department about the elderly population’s needs and technical obstacles, Chin said, who explained to officials that registration sites weren’t accessible for people who don’t speak English or can’t use the internet. The Health Department eventually offered to send personnel from an independent pharmacy to vaccinate On Lok House residents.

“The feeling it left me was that there seems to be a lack of cultural and language competency at the Health Department,” Chin said.

The city now has its own vaccine registration site. It’s available only in English and Spanish, but officials said they are working to add more languages.

» READ MORE: Philly residents have to go online to sign up for the coronavirus vaccine. But what about people who can’t?

The city’s initial request for proposals for vaccine funding didn’t mention language barriers or outreach to non-English speakers. The new guidelines issued last week include a requirement that groups detail “how communication will be facilitated for persons with Limited English Proficiency.”

The initial funding requirements in December referenced a need to reach populations “unlikely to access existing systems of care” and to have a history of trust with such communities. The new document has been edited to make racial equity goals more explicit.

Health Department spokesperson James Garrow said last week that requirements for vaccine funding “are much more onerous” than those for testing, but that the city will consider any group that can meet the qualifications.

But advocates remain concerned.

“There’s a void in leadership and communities have no choice but to step in,” Chin said. “The government needs to understand that it cannot reach these populations on their own.”