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Philly Fighting COVID disaster strikes another blow to vaccine trust in Black communities | Solomon Jones

I got my COVID vaccine—but from a trusted Black doctor, not hapless "college kids."

Solomon Jones with his wife LaVeta after receiving their first COVID vaccine shots on Jan. 17, 2021.
Solomon Jones with his wife LaVeta after receiving their first COVID vaccine shots on Jan. 17, 2021.Read moreSolomon Jones

The Philly Fighting COVID debacle, where a group of self-described “college kids” with little-to-no medical experience was given a city partnership to run a mass vaccination program, is more than a national embarrassment. It could very well worsen the Black community’s mistrust of the COVID-19 vaccine — a mistrust our community can’t afford.

Having watched for months as Black people died from COVID-19 at nearly three times the rate of white people, there were already some in the Black community who saw the virus as a genocidal racist plot, and the vaccine as a tool meant to finish the job. That kind of mistrust is not based in some vague sense of racial paranoia. It’s driven by atrocities like the Tuskegee study, where Black men with syphilis did not receive proper treatment for their illness so doctors could document their agonizing march toward death, or the cruel work of Dr. J. Marion Sims, who developed gynecological techniques while operating on enslaved Black women without anesthesia.

I understand that history. But I also trust the Black doctors who’ve guided me through this pandemic and assured me that the vaccine is safe. My trust in them is why my wife and I took our first dose of the Moderna vaccine on Jan. 17 with Dr. Ala Stanford and the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, an organization that has been working to address COVID in the Black community for nearly a year.

But for Black people who see the disproportionate number of Black COVID-19 deaths as an extension of the medical industry’s racist past, the story of a company like Philly Fighting COVID will provide yet another reason to shy away from the vaccination process.

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

The story reads like something from a comic book. It starts with Philadelphia officials signing off on vaccine distribution from a company run by a 22-year-old Drexel University undergraduate named Andrei Doroshin. Neither he nor any of those in his company’s leadership have advanced medical degrees. The company, whose leadership is entirely white and which received no city money to administer vaccines, starts out as a nonprofit, but switches to a for-profit model without telling the city. Then the company institutes a privacy policy that allows it to sell the information of those who sign up to be vaccinated — while insisting it never “intended” to sell the data.

Along the way, the company allegedly botches vaccination appointments, and does not require volunteers to document their medical credentials. A volunteer alleged that the CEO took home extra vials of vaccine, which Doroshin admitted to doing in a TV segment aired Thursday.* Other reports emerged of volunteers taking pictures as they injected their friends with the vaccine in a “free-for-all,” WHYY reported.

Now, with more than 200 vaccine doses missing, the city has severed ties with the company, and Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro and Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner are asking those who know of criminal activity or feel they’ve been duped to call their offices. Meanwhile, City Council is preparing to hold a hearing to determine what went wrong.

» READ MORE: Be mad at Philly Fighting COVID. But also be mad at Kenney administration for letting this scandal happen. | Opinion

In response to my request for comment, a spokesperson for the Philadelphia Public Health Department sent a statement reading in part: “The Philadelphia Department of Public Health will no longer work with Philly Fighting COVID to provide testing or vaccine, effective immediately. We have recently been made aware of a change in PFC’s corporate status that took place without our knowledge, from nonprofit to for-profit. As part of this change, PFC updated its data privacy policy in a way that could allow the organization to sell data collected through PFC’s pre-registration site. The City has not been notified of any of these data having been sold. But for PFC to have made these changes without discussion with the City is extremely troubling. As a result of these concerns, along with PFC’s unexpected stoppage of testing operations, the Health Department has decided to stop providing vaccine to PFC.”

I think it’s more than that. I think the city, in a move that smacks of racial insensitivity, looked past the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium — a Black-run organization already doing the work in the community most affected by COVID-19. Rather than building on existing relationships, the city maintained a partnership with a fly-by-night organization that nobody knew, an organization with no medical experience. Then the city wondered why things went awry.

» READ MORE: Penn must cut ties with Dr. Albert Kligman, who conducted unethical human research on Black men | Opinion

If we are going to vaccinate the Philadelphians who need it most, the city must work with those who have already engaged with the affected communities. Giving vaccine to students with no medical experience and with no connection to the people is unjustifiable. Not only does it breed the kind of apparent incompetence we saw with Philly Fighting COVID’s handling of vaccine doses. It also bolsters skeptics who believe the vaccine is meant to destroy Black people.

The city has taken a positive step to be in touch with those who are seeking to be vaccinated by directing them to the health department’s online portal. However, getting those who don’t trust the vaccine to look beyond their skepticism is not something that can happen online.

Defeating this virus will require working with the organizations that have the community’s trust. Doing otherwise, as we’ve learned, is a recipe for disaster.

*Editor’s note: This post has been updated with news developments around Doroshin taking home vaccine doses.