The fallout over alleged missteps by the group Philly Fighting COVID sparked new questions and outrage Thursday, after the organization’s 22-year-old CEO admitted he had taken home doses from Philadelphia’s largest vaccination site and inoculated his friends.
“To have selected an unknown and unproven entity for a contract of over $100,000 for testing and then to [give] the green light for a massive [vaccine] operation at the Philadelphia Convention Center without doing our homework is absolutely unacceptable,” said Councilmember Cindy Bass. “We demand answers.”
Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Pa.) asked the city’s health commissioner to answer questions about how the city will ensure vaccine distribution is equitable and any future partners are vetted and credible.
Drexel University sought to distance itself from the group, which was founded by Drexel graduate student Andrei Doroshin and listed a Drexel professor as its chief science officer. In a statement, university president John Fry said the school had no involvement in the group and was not part of the city’s investigation.
The city cut ties this week after Philly Fighting COVID abruptly ended its coronavirus testing program, failed to disclose that personal information residents entered into the preregistration portal could be sold, and presented itself as a nonprofit even after establishing a for-profit arm.
Doroshin, the CEO, had previously called the reports that he had removed vaccine doses “baseless” and told Philadelphia Magazine that he had “no idea why they are saying this.” A nurse told The Inquirer that she had seen Doroshin take doses.
But on the Today show Thursday morning, Doroshin admitted he had taken home four doses of the vaccine and inoculated his friends, even though he is not qualified to administer the vaccine.
“The doses were about to expire,” Doroshin said, adding that he called around trying to find someone in need of the vaccine. “We called everybody we knew. Every single person.”
Earlier that day, however, a 68-year-old Bucks County man had been turned away from the site, according to his wife.
Lynn Newbould told The Inquirer her husband, Bill, received a text message three hours before his appointment that said he couldn’t be vaccinated because he didn’t live in the city — even though she got her first dose there one week earlier. (WHYY also reported that Philly Fighting COVID had turned away elderly patients with appointments on the day Doroshin took home doses.)
”We thought, ‘OK, now they’re changing their requirements,’” said Newbould, a clinical researcher from Newtown. The couple understood being turned away based on residency. “But then to hear the guy took them home and gave it to his 20-year-old friends instead of my husband is just, you know, really upsetting.”
Philadelphia is among only a few cities managing its own vaccine rollout, and its distribution has outpaced most. Across the country, 21.7 million people have received at least one dose of the two-shot vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Even as the nation’s average new case numbers continued declining, bad news came from South Carolina, where a coronavirus variant identified in South Africa that could spread more easily was found for the first time in the United States.
Pennsylvania reported 6,036 new cases, including a large backlog from urgent care centers, and 198 deaths. Philadelphia reported 475 new cases and 15 deaths. New Jersey reported 3,962 cases and 82 deaths.
Gov. Tom Wolf said Thursday that Pennsylvania was discussing ways to improve the coronavirus vaccine rollout while working with the federal government as it tries to increase the supply of doses.
He said getting the commonwealth “back on track” after the pandemic is one of his legislative priorities for the year, saying he wanted to put billions into a reformed workforce development system, increase broadband access for students, and raise the minimum wage.
“We need to make major, major targeted investments to strengthen our economy,” Wolf said at a briefing where he also touted expanding election and criminal reforms and legalizing recreational marijuana.
In a statement, House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R., Centre/Mifflin) called Wolf’s address disappointing. “The governor and his administration should have no other top priority than getting Pennsylvanians vaccinated,” Benninghoff said.
Asked about Philly Fighting COVID, Wolf said the issue was not his concern because Philadelphia is managing its vaccine distribution independently from the state. “This is one of those cases where I can actually point the finger and say, it’s not my job,” he said.
Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley has said the city will contact anyone vaccinated by the group, investigate the missing doses, and set up clinics to replace the Philly Fighting COVID site.
Angry that a self-proclaimed group of “college kids” was allowed to partner with the city, Bass and her Council colleagues raised concerns and said it was a disturbing example of systemic racism, citing officials’ reluctance last spring to partner with Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium.
“The Philly Fighting COVID debacle clearly shows the administration does not value the work of the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium,” said Councilmember Katherine Gilmore Richardson. “This city has a dismal track record with supporting Black and brown businesses with and through its contracting process.”
Councilmember Cherelle Parker noted that the Black doctors’ organization, which is run by medical professionals, received 2,500 vaccine doses, while a group run by students with no medical experience received 7,000.
“I want to know, how did this unproven, unqualified group of non-health-care-related people get pushed to the front of the line of the vaccine distribution?” Parker asked. “Who advocated on their behalf?”
“That is my mistake to carry for the rest of my life, but it is not the mistake of the organization,” Doroshin said.
A spokesperson for District Attorney Larry Krasner said the office was aware of Doroshin’s comments in the interview and reiterated that the allegations about Philly Fighting COVID are “concerning.” She urged members of the public aware of criminal activity to contact their office. Tipsters can also contact the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office.
Staff writers Oona Goodin-Smith, Rob Tornoe, and Erin McCarthy contributed to this article.