Philadelphia Health Department under investigation as it seeks new vaccine partners

After receiving the vaccination, patients wait under observation at the mass vaccine clinic at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

After receiving the vaccination, patients wait under observation at the mass vaccine clinic at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Philadelphia’s inspector general is launching an investigation into the city Health Department’s relationship with Philly Fighting COVID. The city is also starting over in its search for vaccine distributors, officials announced Monday.

The formal inquiry comes days after Deputy Health Commissioner Dr. Caroline Johnson resigned after it came out that she exchanged emails about budget with the disgraced start-up and another group.

“I viewed the email as a violation of her responsibility as a public official,” Inspector General Alexander DeSantis told WHYY News. “She decided on her own to resign.”

Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley confirmed that the IG’s investigation supersedes the internal investigation Mayor Jim Kenney requested last week.

“Because he’s going to be interviewing staff and collecting information, he does not want us doing the same thing at the same time,” said Farley, referring to the inspector general, whom he asked to get involved after Johnson’s emails surfaced.

The Health Department will issue a new request for proposals that is untainted by Johnson’s early communication with Philly Fighting COVID CEO Andrei Doroshin, Farley said. City Council has also proposed new regulations to add oversight to the process.

DeSantis couldn’t give a timeline for when the Office of Inspector General report would be available to the public. He said he plans to investigate every facet of the city’s relationship with PFC, by reviewing all documents and communications, and interviewing staff.

In the meantime, the Philadelphia Department of Public Health has begun running “second dose” vaccination clinics for those who received their first doses from Philly Fighting COVID, and will continue that distribution from Wednesday through Saturday this week, the department said.

People who got their first shots from PFC but haven’t yet heard about their second doses should call 215-685-5488 to get appointments.

Pharmacies and hospitals will also forge ahead with vaccinations for eligible groups.

Farley said he was saddened by the departure of Johnson, his former deputy, an infectious disease expert with extensive immunization planning experience who had been leading the vaccination team for the Health Department. He will take over her duties leading the department’s 50-member vaccination team.

Some lawmakers have called for Farley himself to step down. He said he felt he had more to contribute to the pandemic response, but would be happy to resign if the mayor ever asked.

“And I’m not asking,” said Mayor Kenney.

A new call for providers, untainted by scandal

The city will issue a new request for proposals to run community vaccination clinics, suggesting that the Health Department feels Johnson’s emails and the larger Philly Fighting COVID scandal have compromised the initial process beyond repair.

“I understand we’ve lost some of the public trust with this latest event,” Farley said Monday, “but we ask people to give us time to regain that trust and deliver the vaccine.”.

Separately, City Council said it will introduce legislation this week to add more oversight to the selection process going forward. It’s unclear how much the city’s proposal process — and the council’s proposed reforms — might slow the rollout of another vaccination clinic.

A new RFP has yet to be released. The first one went out in late December. Nine groups had submitted applications, including Penn Medicine, Einstein Health Network, and Temple Health. Health Department spokesperson James Garrow said earlier this month that the department would not start reviewing proposals until the city gets federal funding it can use for vaccine distribution.

The contracts will be awarded via the nonprofit Philadelphia Mental Health Care Corp., making each of the vaccine providers subcontractors. This method is used to expedite the procurement process, according to Farley. Councilmember Quiñones Sánchez called for a review of that organization Monday afternoon for its role as a pass-through, noting she has been wary of the arrangement for years. The money granted to Philly Fighting COVID for testing came through PMHCC.

Vaccinations for teachers in Philadelphia schools may be delayed as a result, Farley said, adding that to expedite things, “[w]e may have to ask providers to work without any funding, at least at first.”

A similar informal arrangement was how Philly Fighting COVID’s vaccination clinics operated. It is also how the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium’s vaccination program is currently working — and is the type of arrangement City Council is seeking to avoid.

Council seeks oversight of vaccine contracts

City Council maintains that responsibility for the vaccine debacle sits squarely on the Kenney administration.

Council President Darrell Clarke and Councilmember Cindy Bass on Monday claimed lawmakers were blindsided by the handshake contract given to Philly Fighting COVID. However, PFC CEO Doroshin testified before Council about his intentions in November, and Bass joined Kenney at a press conference last month announcing the city partnership in the vaccination site.

“This administration has really broken the trust, in my opinion, of the city of Philadelphia,” Bass said. “The selection of this entity raises a lot of red flags.”

City Council does not issue contracts. Council President Clarke called Doroshin’s fall appearance a “sales pitch” to the council, adding that lawmakers operated under the impression the city would do proper contract negotiations with any group before handing over vaccines.

Legislation to be introduced Thursday will seek to insert a few more oversight mechanisms into the process.

If passed, the city will need a written contractual agreement with any group before it can receive vaccines, with its qualifications also outlined in writing. Philly Fighting COVID did not receive this kind of vetting.

The bill would also require the city to give Council a two-day notice before entering into the vaccination contract. The contract recipient would have to meet biweekly reporting requirements on vaccine distribution in the city.

“We need to be in a position that, whatever happens as it relates to the distribution of this vaccine, it’s done in a way that … is clear, that is transparent, that is fair,” Clarke said.

He also called for the new distribution plan to prioritize residents of color, who are undervaccinated compared to Philadelphia’s white population, according to city data. Kenney said his team hadn’t reviewed the legislation yet to comment.

Council’s hearing on the PFC scandal will kick off on Friday, though lawmakers have not yet released a list of people who will testify.

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