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Philadelphia deputy health commissioner resigns following Philly Fighting COVID controversy

Deputy Health Commissioner Dr. Caroline Johnson resigned Saturday night amid the fallout from the city's now severed partnership with Philly Fighting COVID.

Dr. Caroline Johnson, Deputy Health Commissioner, Philadelphia Department of Public Health makes a statement at the opening the Philly Fighting COVID mass vaccination site.
Dr. Caroline Johnson, Deputy Health Commissioner, Philadelphia Department of Public Health makes a statement at the opening the Philly Fighting COVID mass vaccination site.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

Deputy Health Commissioner Caroline Johnson has resigned after records obtained by The Inquirer show she gave an advantage in a city bidding process to Andrei Doroshin, Philly Fighting COVID’s young CEO who until this week the city entrusted to run its largest vaccination site.

Johnson sent a similar message of advice to the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, which was provided to The Inquirer by Health Department spokesperson James Garrow.

» 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.

In late December, emails obtained by The Inquirer show Johnson messaged Doroshin about the city’s requests for proposals to administer vaccines. Although the RFPs had been publicly posted, officials are not permitted to selectively encourage people to apply. The Health Department was unaware of this email until questions from The Inquirer.

“These communications were made after the RFP was publicly posted. However, these actions were inappropriate because the information shared was not available to all potential applicants,” Garrow wrote in a statement Saturday. “While these actions may have been intended to help advance the City’s vaccine distribution effort, the Health Commissioner has accepted her resignation in the best interest of the city.”

When Johnson emailed Doroshin, she gave him advice on his application, telling him to start “conservatively” with a $500,000 bid. “This is being funded by the City initially. We are hoping that significantly more funds can be awarded if Congress ever passes the COVID relief bill,” she wrote. “It is fine to include costs for your planning activities and the proposed Jan 8-9 event.”

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. The city did not provide funds for the Philly Fighting COVID Convention Center mass vaccination site.

”Providing a dollar amount to some but not all applicants would present an unfair advantage to those applicants and violate our best practices,” Garrow said in a statement.

The incident has been referred to the City of Philadelphia Inspector General.

The resignation of one of the city’s top public health officials comes after the city’s Department of Public Health abruptly ended its partnership with Philly Fighting COVID on Monday. The organization had 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.

Farley told The Inquirer Friday it had been “a mistake” to work with Philly Fighting COVID, which is run by a self-described group of college kids.

“I terminated the arrangement when I saw the information that they at least had the legal ability to sell or otherwise share information for people on their website,” Farley said in an interview Friday. “Now, we’ve heard many other things that make me very concerned that this is simply a very unprofessional operation … in retrospect, we shouldn’t have gone into relationship with them in the first place.”

» READ MORE: The scandal surrounding Philly Fighting COVID fuels mistrust in medicine, especially for Black and brown communities, say experts

Philly Fighting COVID’s mass vaccination site opened on Jan. 8 and Johnson attended the launch along with Mayor Jim Kenney and Council members Cindy Bass and Bobby Henon, the chair and vice chair of the public health and human services committee.

The Health Department did not make Johnson available for an interview this week.

Doroshin called a news conference in the lobby of his Fishtown apartment complex Friday to defend his work. During it, he said Johnson should replace Farley as health commissioner.

“If Philadelphia wants to fight this virus, it needs to do a few things first. First, it needs to put Dr. Caroline Johnson in charge of the Health Department. She’s an incredible woman. She’s passionate, she’s compassionate, and she’s fearless,” Doroshin said. “We’ve worked very closely with her over the last six months in building this mass vaccine model that has worked.”

Johnson was appointed deputy health commissioner in July 2015, after more than a decade as the disease control division director for the department. She has also worked at the Medical College of Pennsylvania and Philadelphia VA Medical Center as an infectious disease physician and researcher, according to the city’s website.

On the day the city would later sever ties with Philly Fighting COVID, Doroshin emailed an update to Johnson about the mass vaccination site.

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

“Dear Dr. J,” Doroshin wrote to Johnson on Jan. 25, “We were 75 doses shy of our goal of 1900 and no doses went to waste.” He did not mention removing doses from the site over the weekend — an action he first denied before admitting it on national television this week.

Less than three hours later, Johnson informed Doroshin that the Health Department severed its relationship with the group.

“I know this is an abrupt and one-sided decision, but it was made at the highest levels of government in response to allegations that were identified,” she wrote.