The city has cut ties with Philly Fighting COVID after the group switched to a for-profit model and adopted a policy that would have allowed them to sell personal data

By Julie Mazziotta
January 29, 2021 09:27 AM
Credit: Today

The city of Philadelphia has cut ties with Philly Fighting COVID, a startup that promised to revolutionize vaccine distribution but the effort instead became what one volunteer nurse described as a "disaster," she told The Washington Post.

Philly Fighting COVID, a self-described "group of college kids," was awarded a contract from the city to help vaccinate people against COVID-19 despite having next to no health care experience, the Washington Post reported. The group's CEO, Andrei Doroshin, a 22-year-old graduate student, gained attention when he started 3-D printing free face shields for health care workers at the start of the pandemic and formed Philly Fighting COVID over the summer to run pop-up testing sites with his friends.

On Jan. 8, in collaboration with city officials, the group opened Philadelphia's largest mass vaccination site, and chaos ensued. Philly Fighting COVID began as a non-profit but switched to a for-profit model, allegedly without telling the city, and said they were going to start billing insurance providers for administering the vaccine doses, even though they received them for free, WHYY reported. However, charging medicare and private insurers for administration of the vaccine is reportedly permitted by the FDA.

"They were bragging about how rich they were going to get," a former volunteer told the outlet of the group's leaders. Doroshin denies those allegations.

They also added a privacy policy that would have allowed the group to sell personal data that they collected from the people they vaccinated. Though Doroshin said the policy was a mistake and that the group never sold the data.

Still, the group continued operating, and instructed people eligible for the vaccine to sign up online. But on Jan. 23, the line to get vaccination stretched outside the vaccination site as people waited hours for their appointment, only to be turned away after learning that the site had been overbooked.

"There were literally 85-year-old, 90-year-old people standing there in tears, with printed appointment confirmations, saying, 'I don't understand why I can't get vaccinated, I'm 85,'" Jillian Horn, a resident who tried to get the vaccine, told WHYY.

Philly Fighting COVID vaccination site
| Credit: Rachel Wisniewski/getty images

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Later that day, despite turning people away, Philly Fights COVID ended up with extra vaccine doses, Katrina Lipinsky, a 29-year-old nurse at the vaccination site, told WHYY. She said she then saw Doroshin put the extra doses into his bag.

"They ended the day with a significant number of unused vaccines," Lipinsky said. "Andrei walked pretty openly from the vaccine area over to his belongings and packed maybe 10 to 15 in his bag with CDC record cards."

A few hours later, a photo reportedly of Doroshin administering doses to a person at a private home allegedly spread on Snapchat. He initially declined to comment, but in an interview with Today on Thursday, Doroshin admitted to taking four doses home and inoculating his friends, despite his lack of medical qualifications. He told TODAY that he had, however, undergone "internal certifications."

Doroshin claimed that the group "called everyone we knew" to try and give the doses to people at a higher risk of severe COVID-19 illness and more in need of the vaccine, but gave them to his young friends instead because "the doses were about to expire."

"I stand by that decision," he said Thursday. "I understand that I made that mistake. That is my mistake to carry the rest of my life. But that is not the mistake of the organization."

City officials canceled their contract with Philly Fights COVID on Monday, and Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley told Today that "in retrospect, we wish we hadn't worked with that organization."

Doroshin said in a statement on Tuesday that the changes to the privacy policy were a mistake, and that they had never planned to sell data. Farley said that city will work with law enforcement to "see if there's any way to make sure that doesn't happen," according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said Tuesday that his office is working with the city to look into the allegations against Philly Fighting COVID and said that "any consumers who believe that they have been misled should file a complaint with our office."

Before getting shut down, Philly Fighting COVID did administer nearly 7,000 vaccine doses. Some who were inoculated are now concerned that they won't be able to get their second vaccine dose. The Philadelphia Health Department has said that they will get another clinic going and ensure that everyone gets fully vaccinated.