Philadelphia deputy health commissioner resigns over Philly Fighting COVID messages

Philadelphia Deputy Health Commissioner Dr. Caroline Johnson speaks at the opening of Philly Fighting COVID's vaccine clinic at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Philadelphia Deputy Health Commissioner Dr. Caroline Johnson speaks at the opening of Philly Fighting COVID's vaccine clinic at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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Dr. Caroline Johnson stepped down from her position acting as Philadelphia’s deputy health commissioner Saturday evening. She had improperly consulted with two groups applying to distribute vaccines, the city Health Department said.

After the city put out a request for proposals for vaccine distribution partners, Johnson had talked to Philly Fighting COVID and the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium about their applications, the Health Department said in a statement Saturday, calling the action “inappropriate” though it may have been intended to help the city distribute vaccines.

“These communications were made after the RFP was publicly posted,” spokesperson James Garrow said, referring to both groups. “However, these actions were inappropriate because the information shared was not available to all potential applicants.”

Dr. Ala Stanford, head of the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, said Saturday night that describing the email she got as similar to the one PFC received wasn’t a fair categorization, since Johnson’s note to Doroshin included specific dates for clinics the CEO and health official had clearly already discussed.

“They were given inside information — they were given opportunities to plan that others were not afforded,” said Stanford.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Johnson had emailed Philly Fighting COVID CEO Andrei Doroshin with advice on his application, telling him to start “conservatively” with a $500,000 bid and that it is “fine to include costs for your planning activities and the proposed Jan 8-9 event.”

Stanford said that by giving Doroshin the OK to include in his proposal the costs for his upcoming clinics — which would occur before any city funds became available — Johnson was essentially guaranteeing Doroshin the contract.

Stanford herself found out about Philly Fighting COVID’s clinics on the news when they launched on Jan. 8, she said, before she was ever approached about running one.

When she got an email from Johnson on Dec. 31, Stanford said, noting the scope of a budget to include in a Black Doctors Consortium’s RFP submission for a clinic, it came as a surprise.

After seeing the email sent to PFC at the time, Stanford guessed Johnson was extending her that same courtesy in a bid to avoid showing favoritism. City RFP processes are laden with extensive requirements to help ensure equity among applicants and avoid the potential for bias.

Doroshin appeared to view Johnson as an ally. At a press conference at his apartment building on Friday, the 22-year-old CEO directly blamed Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley for ousting his group, saying without evidence that the move was based on political motivations. He suggested Johnson should take over.

“I’m calling [on] Farley to step down and be replaced by Dr. Johnson,” Doroshin said. “Dr. Johnson is the only way that this city can get us [through this] pandemic.”

Ostensibly in the interest of speeding the process and getting more people vaccinated faster, Philly Fighting COVID and the Black Doctors Consortium had both been given vaccine doses outside of any sort of formal arrangement, ahead of the RFP deadline.

At least one time, however, Doroshin from Philly Fighting COVID took vaccine doses home with him, against city protocol, despite not being qualified to give the vaccine himself.

Penn Medicine, Temple Health, and Einstein Healthcare Network have all applied to become vaccine distribution partners for the city.

Commissioner Farley accepted Johnson’s resignation, according to the statement, and has also referred the matter to the city inspector general.

Johnson holds an M.D. from the University of Maryland and is certified in internal medicine and infectious disease, according to the department staff page on the city’s website. She was appointed acting deputy health commissioner in July 2015. Prior to that, per the bio, she was director of the department’s division of disease control for 11 years.

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