The public health nightmare we’ve been living through for the last 10 months has unfolded with even more horrifying chapters. This week saw another particularly terrible installment when the city Department of Public Health announced it had parted ways with Philly Fighting COVID, a student-run organization administering mass vaccinations at the behest of the city.
The rupture first came when the organization, run by 22-year-old Drexel graduate student Andrei Doroshin and staffed heavily with college students, changed its status from nonprofit to for-profit, raising privacy concerns about data collected from people seeking vaccines. The Philadelphia Public Health Department pulled the plug on its arrangement with the group.
It got worse when allegations the CEO, with no medical or public health background who bragged about “throwing the system out the window,” was seen taking vials of the vaccine home, and reports surfaced of Snapchat images of him inoculating friends.
How were no red flags raised before giving this organization the first mass vaccination site to operate?
Doroshin is gone now, but the disaster and its fallout will be with us for some time. This, after all, is not just a botched job of delivering a precious lifesaving vaccine as a deadly pandemic rages around us.
It’s a catastrophe for public health in general — which must have at its core public trust. That trust, which has been a central issue to how successful the country has been in battling the pandemic, has been decimated by this episode. It has repercussions for how successfully the city will be able to fight COVID-19, especially among vulnerable communities of color.
How did a 22-year-old gain a place at the table — where he passed the vetting of the CDC and the Public Health Department, presented to City Council, and got to be first in line to set up a mass vaccination site?
This is not the first story of a charismatic wunderkind claiming to disrupt the system who’s captivated grown-ups who should know better. Philly Fighting COVID did not raise billions, or even millions of dollars on the scale of WeWork CEO Adam Neumann or Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes — they were not paid for their services — but PFC was entrusted with the massive responsibility for vaccinating people in the midst of a deadly pandemic — one that has hit the elderly and people of color particularly hard. The image of 85- and 90-year-olds in tears unable to get vaccinated despite appointments, as one WHYY news account described, is haunting.
The full picture of how this happened and the scope of the damage has yet to fully emerge. PFC was not the sole organization approved for delivering vaccines, but the first to administer mass vaccinations. The group got 6,950 doses — about 5.3% — of the 130,290 doses the health department allocated to a number of institutions, organizations, clinics, and other partners, as of last week.
And to be sure, Philadelphia is not the only place that has stumbled in administering COVID-19 vaccines. With the lack of federal guidance and planning, states and cities have been left to fend for themselves amid ongoing vaccine supply and distribution problems.
But this is a big problem that Mayor Jim Kenney must come out of quarantine to address. Friday, he sent a letter to Public Health Commissioner Thomas Farley, but has not addressed the public. He has also not addressed a public safety crisis following a blistering report from the Controller’s Office on the Police Department’s handling of police protests. He was absent from a Thursday press conference where Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw defended the department’s actions.
Where is he now, when Philadelphians need to understand how this vaccination disaster happened, how it’s going to get fixed, and whether this is a glitch that can be quickly corrected? The mayor wasn’t personally responsible for signing up Philly Fighting COVID, but he is responsible for assuring the people of this city — huddled in their houses, terrified for their lives and their livelihoods — that the city has things under control. The vaccine mess has given people a reason to distrust government even further. As the head of that government in Philadelphia, Mayor Kenney’s silence is damaging — and worst case, potentially deadly.
Editor’s note: This editorial was updated to reflect Mayor Kenney’s letter to Health Commission Farley.