NINA FELDMAN, HOST: The implosion of the city’s partnership with Philly Fighting COVID made headlines across the country. Philly was a nationwide embarrassment. It even made it to the late show with Stephen Colbert.
CLIP, LATE NIGHT WITH STEPHEN COLBERT: Getting more vaccines is great, but we really need to examine the way we give them out, especially in Philadelphia where they made the oopsie daisy of letting college kids distribute the vaccine, and the result was a disaster.
NF: Becoming a punchline meant heads had to roll. The day after the relationship with Philly Fighting COVID ended, the finger pointing began. Andrei blamed Philadelphia’s health commissioner, Dr. Tom Farley.
CLIP, ANDREI DOROSHIN: And at the first smell of gunpowder, the head of the health department ran.
NF: Farley went on the defensive.
CLIP, DR. TOM FARLEY: So I hope people can understand why it is, on the surface, this looked like a good thing.
NF: Andrei ended up in the driver’s seat of Philadelphia’s vaccine rollout because he offered a sense of purpose to young do-gooders. He built a team. He was persistent with city officials. He had a plan. He faked it till he made it.
But what was happening on the city’s end of things? How did so many people, including the head of Philadelphia’s Health Department, fail to see this disaster coming?
From WHYY, this is Half Vaxxed, I’m your host, Nina Feldman.
In this episode, we’re going to answer the question that was on everyone’s mind during those first few days after the clinics were canceled: Why would the city have ever chosen this group at all?
As we continued reporting the story, Alan, Max, and I considered two main hypotheses, two possible scenarios that could have led to the city going with Philly Fighting COVID.
The first seemed like the most obvious: Again, Philly is a who-you-know kind of town. Did Andrei get picked by the city because someone with power was doing favors for him? Maybe.
But political insiders in Philly love to bring up an old saying: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. So that was our second potential scenario. Maybe the people in charge at the health department simply had the wool pulled over their eyes. They were just… not doing a good job.
Before we get too far into either scenario, here’s how city officials explained why they cut ties with the group. In a press conference, Farley admitted they shouldn’t have picked Philly Fighting COVID.
TF: Again, in retrospect, we wish we hadn’t worked with that organization.
NF: Farley said there were three big reasons why he ended things with the group. First, he said he didn’t like that Philly Fighting COVID had so abruptly canceled its testing operations. Second, he didn’t like that they had started that for-profit arm, Vax Populi. Finally, Farley said that in Vax Populi’s privacy statement, there was language that would have allowed the group to sell patient data — all that personal information that people entered into the pre-registration website. Farley said even if they never did it, just the possibility that they could sell people’s data made them untrustworthy.
As for Andrei taking vaccines off site and administering them himself? Farley claimed he hadn’t even known about that when he made the decision to cut ties.
In general, he made it sound like he’d been blindsided, like this was the first he was ever hearing of any trouble.
TF: We decided to give them the opportunity to run mass clinics and the first mass clinic went quite well with the number of people who were vaccinated. None of the problems that have come to light now had come to light at that point.
NF: But we know that those problems had come to light, and the city knew about them: the sloppy invoices from back when they were running testing sites, the missing racial data from the very first weekend vaccinating at the convention center. Plus, there was the warning that former medical director, Dr. Jose Torradas, gave before the vaccine clinic opened. People at the health department knew all of that.
That’s why Andrei wasn’t buying it. He thought something more sinister was at play. But for him, things were spiraling.
At first, he denied taking vaccine doses off site, but he later admitted it. The press who had fawned all over him, turned abruptly. Here he is with that same Today Show reporter who’d done the “whiz kid” segment from the last episode.
CLIP, THE TODAY SHOW, STEPHANIE GOSK TO AD: Are you qualified to give a vaccine?
AD TO SG: I am not a nurse. I have undergone our internal certifications —
SG TO AG: But Andrei, you’re not qualified, right?
AD TO SG: No.
NF: Andrei stood by his decision. He didn’t think those kinds of protocols were important. He said over and over again that this was a war and you had to move fast. If that meant taking vaccines home for your friends rather than letting shots go to waste, well, that’s what it meant.
AD: We have to set a standard that’s like, you know what? Sometimes rules do have to go out the window if we’re going to beat this enemy.
NF: Andrei was still doing damage control. He wrote to his close ally at the health department, Farley’s number two and the head of the city’s vaccine response, Dr. Caroline Johnson. Andrei pleaded with her: could they meet with a lawyer and make things right? Otherwise, he wrote, this would destroy them. Johnson responded right away. She was powerless to help him anymore. It was her own agency that had kicked them out.
Meanwhile, Andrei’s fancy PR firm ditched him as a client, leaving him on all on his own to defend himself to the media. That’s why, grasping for some semblance of control, he went on the war path.
[ambient sound of reporters gathering]
He hosted a press conference on his own turf —
CLIP, AD AT PRESS CONFERENCE: “Hello, everyone…”
NF: — in the lobby of his apartment complex. And he took aim at Dr. Farley.
AD: So where’s Dr. Farley now? Is he at the convention center vaccinating thousands of people like he should be? Has he come out with a real plan or did a 22-year-old and his college friends have to do that for him?
NF: Andrei had an answer for everything the health department had accused him of. He admitted the software they used to send sign-up links kind of sucked, but lots of places were using it. He didn’t think that amounted to a fireable offense. And he claimed the city knew about his for-profit switch.
AD: They knew the entire time. I actually have documentation of that. We asked them in the beginning of January, “Hey, guys, is it cool if we go for-profit?”
Andrei seemed to be getting at something deeper. If, like he claimed, all of these reasons were just excuses to end the relationship with Philly Fighting COVID, why did the city really cut ties? My colleague, Max Marin was there in the lobby that day, and he asked Andrei exactly that.
MAX MARIN TO AD: The city knew about Vax Populi, the city knew about the privacy arrangement, why did they cut ties with you?
AD TO MM: They cut ties because… dirty power politics.
NF: Philly City Hall has historically been a hotbed for corruption and insider dealing. Andrei was presenting himself as the victim of political sabotage — but it got us thinking: Could he have been the one playing “power politics” all along to get vaccines before everyone else?
This brings us to the first possible scenario for why the city chose Philly Fighting COVID: Had someone inside city government pulled strings to put Andrei on the fast-track to vaccines?
My co-reporter Max has covered politics and government in this city for years, so he got to work sussing it out.
MM: There were a number of immediate suspects, all of them on city council.
NF: Suspect number one: Kenyatta Johnson.
MM: Johnson oversees the big district where the giant sports complexes are located — the same stadiums Andrei had been eyeing to convert into mass vaccine clinics for months. Coincidentally, Johnson is awaiting trial on federal corruption and bribery charges.
NF: Right. So, what did Johnson have to do with Andrei?
MM: In early December, Johnson’s office brokered meetings between Andrei, the heads of the stadiums, and Andrei’s dad, the real estate developer. Andrei had a whole plan where the Phillies baseball players would be a part of the vaccine administration. The Phillies seemed to be into it.
NF: Okay, but the stadium vaccine clinics never materialized. The convention center did.
MM: Right, and that brings us to suspect number two: another councilmember, Mark Squilla. He helped Andrei and his dad make that happen. He put them in touch with the convention center and even offered to facilitate a vaccine clinic at a casino in his district.
NF: But that type of thing isn’t unusual for a council member, right? I mean, my impression is they’re always kind of brokering connections like that.
MM: You’re right. But you have to remember, after the house of cards collapsed, anyone who had made contact with Philly Fighting COVID looked suspicious in retrospect. But at the time, Johnson and Squilla were just doing what any council member would do — making introductions. Both council members told us they assumed the group was trustworthy because they were working with the city, and they just wanted to help with the vaccine rollout in any way they could.
NF: Okay, but there was someone who did do something unusual. Tell us about that.
MM Yeah, and this leads us to our final suspect: Bobby Henon.
Henon is another council member who is awaiting trial on federal corruption charges. He was a big cheerleader for Andrei. He was one of the few council members to defend Andrei and Philly Fighting COVID — not just before the scandal erupted, but even after it. And he helped Andrei make connections, too. In December, his office boasted that the organization would soon become the, quote, “largest supplier of vaccines in the city.”
NF: Woah, bold claim, but there’s no way they could have known that yet, right?
MM: Absolutely not.
NF: So why was Henon hyping them up so much?
MM: We don’t really know when they first became buds, or why, but we do know they get pretty cozy. Like, personal favor cozy.
MM: Around Christmastime, I found out Henon was trying to get his family tested before they traveled for the holidays. There were long lines at the COVID testing sites in his area and his family didn’t make it before one of the sites closed. So he put in a call and Philly Fighting COVID sent someone over to Henon’s house with testing swabs.
NF: Wait, like, concierge testing in the middle of a pandemic?
MM Yeah, not exactly something available to everyday people.
NF: Okay, that might be an inappropriate VIP service, but was it illegal?
MM: No, and as weird as it all was, Henon maintained it was above board and there was no quid pro quo. So it was starting to look like these council members really didn’t do any more than make some calls, take a few meetings and in Henon’s case, get some free testing. The smoking gun we thought we might find didn’t seem to exist.
NF: Which would then point to a different scenario for why the city partnered with this group.
MM: That’s correct. Don’t attribute to malice that which can be explained by stupidity.
NF: So as spicy as it would have been, it was beginning to look like hypothesis number one — the malice scenario — was unlikely.
Meanwhile, the city council members who hadn’t been involved with the Doroshins were furious. They wanted to know how this group could have gotten through a city vetting process without the health department noticing all the red flags.
HEARING CLIP, COUNCILMEMBER CINDY BASS: I’m outraged and I want answers now.
HEARING CLIP, COUNCILMEMBER DAVID OH: It’s shocking — beyond shocking. It’s bizarre to learn of something like this.
NF: This brings us to hypothesis number two: the stupidity scenario. Was the health department just falling down on the job? City Council members certainly thought so.
BASS: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, we were duped!
NF: They called a hearing where they grilled city officials.
HEARING CLIP, COUNCILMEMBER ISAIAH THOMAS: What research is required before a candidate is picked to get a contract? Right? So in your department, like, do people Google folks?
HEARING CLIP, OH: How did they get a contract and how is it that you don’t know who they are?
NF: The answer is they didn’t get a contract. The city claimed they didn’t need one for this kind of work since no money changed hands.
When the city picked Philly Fighting COVID, the health department was about to release an application for groups to become paid vaccine providers, the same way it had for testing. But that hadn’t happened yet.
But having a written agreement in place with any outside group should be a no-brainer in city government. We talked to Lori Freeman about this. She’s the head of the national association for city and county health agencies, or NACCHO — it’s a Washington, D.C. based group that advocates for public health departments across the country.
LORI FREEMAN: You know, it’s really easy during times of emergency when everybody is so busy trying to organize response and do the right thing to let up on your strong policies and procedures and processes, even around contracting and grants. And that’s something you just should never let go of.
NF: Lori says that a time of crisis should not be an excuse to go rogue. Even if you’re in a hurry — in fact, especially if you’re in a hurry, you still need protocols in place.
LF: They will protect you from something like this happening in the future.
NF: In other words, as alluring as it is to move fast and break things, you have to vet people, or it could come back to bite you.
Okay, but let’s just say for a second you’re not going to play by those rules, and you need to pick someone fast. Why not choose someone else? Someone more experienced, like one of the four medical powerhouses based in Philadelphia?
Farley explained this by saying he was worried the hospitals were too busy. There was a massive influx of COVID patients at the time and they were vaccinating their own frontline workers. Philly Fighting COVID offered the path of least resistance.
So whose decision was it to take that path without any formal vetting? Anyone who’s ever led a team or a business knows that a structural issue as big as this, you can’t blame on the team members. It all stems from the top. And all of this had happened on Dr. Farley’s watch.
At the city council hearings, Farley seemed shockingly clueless for the person who was supposed to be in charge.
MONTAGE OF FARLEY AT COUNCIL HEARINGS, PRESS BRIEFINGS: “I don’t know when the first conversations were about having them manage…” “…Also a very good question to which I would like the answer to, I don’t know the answer…” “I can’t provide that information today. I want to know as much as you do. I’m happy to tell you everything I know, but I don’t know the answer to all those questions.” “I don’t know any of the facts you’re talking about, I have to run down those facts.”
NF: So if not Farley, who did have the answers? One official on Farley’s team had been quietly standing by Andrei’s side through all of this: Deputy health commissioner, Dr. Caroline Johnson.
Johnson didn’t respond to our request for an interview for this podcast. But she had done the most for Andrei. She had been the one to invite him to the vaccine advisory committee. She had given him a chance to do the mass vaccination site before there was even a contract to sign.
She promised Andrei’s private investors that he’d keep getting vaccines from the city just four days before the whole thing imploded. And, it turned out, she had given him a piece of advice she shouldn’t have.
Around Christmas, Johnson was preparing the public application that everyone would be able to fill out to apply for vaccine funding. But she sent an email to Andrei telling him to ask for about $500,000 in his application.
There’s no evidence that Johnson would have gotten anything in return for this — in fact, she had sent similar advice to multiple groups. But city officials are not supposed to favor any potential bidders in the contracting process.
In the days after the city cut ties with the group, The Philadelphia Inquirer got ahold of that email, and showed it to Farley. He told Johnson to resign. The city had found someone to take the fall.
So was that it? Could all of this really be chalked up to one person’s bad judgment? It kind of makes me think about when a goalkeeper is blamed for letting in a game-winning shot. The goal scorer had to get through the entire defense first. There were dozens of staffers who knew Philly Fighting COVID was trouble.
Mayor Jim Kenney asked the city’s top government watchdog, Inspector General Alexander DeSantis, to get to the bottom of it.
CLIP, INSPECTOR GENERAL ALEX DESANTIS PRESS CONFERENCE: “Thank you everybody for joining us this afternoon. Inspector General Alex DeSantis. A couple points…”
NF: In his report, the inspector general said the first big mistake the health department made was doing anything without a contract. If they had one, there would have been a vetting process built in.
DESANTIS: I think a lot of those communications failures happened because the department moved forward without formalizing the relationship.
NF: Desantis also found that the city’s testing staffers and their vaccine staff just never talked to each other.
DESANTS: There was no structure to evaluate this company in the context of vaccine.
NF: If there had been, Desantis said, there might have been a chance for the testing staff to warn the vaccine staff about Andrei.
And once the city had chosen Philly Fighting COVID, DeSantis found they ignored warning signs left and right, like Dr. Jose Torradas leaving.
DESANTIS: The chief medical officer resigned and actually pressed the department to do a little bit additional research into this organization. I think as far as the timeline that we presented is one of the key decision points that probably should have been revisited.
NF: Finally, the inspector general said that Farley was uninformed, disconnected, and delegated too much. He said a leader should be more closely involved in big decisions like this. Still, Mayor Jim Kenney, known for his tendency to delegate major responsibilities to the people below him, defended his health commissioner.
MAYOR JIM KENNEY: I wish he was perfect. I wish we all were perfect. I know that Tom Farley fully understands that the vaccination process is too important, too crucial to this stage of the pandemic to delegate. I know that he is now fully connected and informed.
NF: Ironically, Kenney would ask his fully connected and informed health commissioner to resign just a few months later over a totally separate scandal. Well, mostly separate. We’ll get to that next time.
I’ve spent months trying to piece together this story. Turning it over and over in my mind. And as I kept thinking through how the city could have possibly pressed on when confronted with blunder after blunder coming from this group, I remembered something Sid had said. He was that PFC staffer who’d had to turn people away at the convention center.
I asked him if he’d been put off by any of the early warning signs. And he said no, not really. They were a startup. They were engineers. Putting out fires was kind of their thing. None of that even struck him as a warning sign — this is how they operated.
SIDDHANT JANARDHANAN: With all the problems we had in Philly fighting COVID, there was always a way to muscle through it, find some way to fix the problem. And I think even on the last day, we’re always just thinking, “Oh, it’s just a problem. Like all the other ones, we’ll fix it.” Never got fixed.
NF: I can almost see an alternate universe where Philly Fighting COVID just kept on solving problems. Almost.
After the break, we’ll ask why it was so easy for the health department to be fleeced in the first place.
NF: From WHYY, this is Half Vaxxed, I’m your host, Nina Feldman.
It wasn’t exactly sexy but, the stupidity scenario — a perfect storm of incompetence — was looking like the most likely culprit here. The health department was wildly unprepared, the left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing, and the leadership was so desperate for a plan that it took some ill-advised shortcuts.
But why was it so desperate? The city had known vaccines were coming for months. As everything came crashing down, a lot of people were wondering why the city hadn’t just run its own mass clinic. Here’s City Councilmember Kendra Brooks.
HEARING CLIP, COUNCILMEMBER KENDRA BROOKS: My question is why didn’t we start here and why did we first look to nonprofits to perform these services rather than directly providing them as a city?
NF: It was a good question. Especially because the health department showed it could have done it on its own. After Philly Fighting COVID dissolved and left thousands of people with no clue where or how they’d get their second dose, the health department stepped up and set up a clinic.
They did it swiftly. They called up health department employees and recruited volunteers from the medical reserve corps — that group Amanda Hughes had originally wanted to join, but had never heard back from.
Later, after the city got everyone who’d been stranded by Philly Fighting COVID their second doses, it was still in the market for a vaccine partner. By this time, America had a new president. Joe Biden made a point of sending the national guard and other federal support across the country to run mass clinics, including in Philadelphia. FEMA picked up where Philly Fighting COVID left off at the convention center. The clinic was efficient and well-organized. I got vaccinated there, so did hundreds of thousands of Philadelphians.
It turned out, getting a bunch of people vaccinated really quickly didn’t require a new model or for health care as we know it to be disrupted. It required a massive amount of federal support.
So why hadn’t this happened all along?
LF: There’s been pretty large disinvestment in public health over the last 12 years.
NF: That’s Lori Freeman from NACCHO again. She says less money has meant fewer workers. So even when health departments get flooded with funding during emergencies from state and federal agencies, they don’t always have the manpower or infrastructure to be able to handle it. That money doesn’t do all that much good without the people to manage the influx.
LF: We need a more sustainable, a longer term investment in public health so that health departments are ready when the emergency comes their way, no matter what it is. And they don’t have to outsource to get the help they need.
NF: Think about it: If health departments are well-funded all the time, not just during a crisis, they have the capacity to put together pandemic plans, and actually be prepared for emergencies. That way, they don’t have to strike up contractless handshake agreements with promising young companies who are offering to do vaccinations for free.
That’s another thing to remember: No money changed hands between the city and Philly Fighting COVID. That’s why Andrei had taken out a loan and was looking for private investors. He was paying for everything himself in hopes of making a lot of money back. He laid it out for me when we talked.
AD: Wait — Stop. If it’s our funding and our funding is delivering a service to the city at a loss — which it is, by the way, right now — what do you care? Right? We’re delivering the service in hopes of winning this RFP to have that pay back the investment or possibly not, but it really doesn’t matter.
He was so ambitious, in part, because he knew that scaling up and vaccinating tons of people at stadiums was the only way he could make his money back, turn a big profit and retire young like he’d told his staff.
And that business model is not unique. It’s the typical startup approach: identify a need, operate at a loss to fill it, attract investors, make profit in the long run —if you’re lucky. Lori Freeman says startup companies have been on overdrive for the past year and a half.
LF: The pandemic has really brought out every entrepreneur, you might imagine, who is looking to capitalize on the pandemic and build a business from it.
NF: She says people come to her organization almost every day with new products or platforms, trying to help health departments do their jobs more efficiently. At first, they used to take them all seriously — some of the ideas seemed pretty cool.
LF: Crisis spurns innovation, there’s no doubt about it, but that it can quickly become overwhelming.
NF: Lori says just because they’re shiny and new and you need to act fast doesn’t mean you can take these businesses at face value. You still have to do your research.
And in fact, according to Lori, many of these groups are much more subtle about their ambitions to make money than Philly Fighting COVID was. Councilmember Cindy Bass said that if it hadn’t been for Andrei’s brazen attitude, the city might have gotten even more deeply entwined with Philly Fighting COVID. That it was Andrei’s own bragging that ultimately did him in, and exposed the city’s failure to vet him.
CB: I would actually like to thank Andrei Doroshin. His incredible greed, an enormous sense of entitlement, drew the attention of the press and uncovered the debacle before us. If it were not for his action, actions, we may have never known about the magnitude of this wink-and-nod contract, which has put thousands of already vulnerable Philadelphians in an even more precarious position.
NF: And we wouldn’t even have to think about hiring someone prone to these types of mistakes, if we consistently funded our own health departments. Here’s Alison Buttenheim — she’s the Penn researcher who sat with Andrei on the vaccine advisory committee. She says with steady funding, we could hire up, make a plan and practice. All the time.
ALISON BUTTENHEIM: It’s like learning how to be a flight attendant and doing the drills for the crashes. They have muscle memory and they have, you know, very clear cues that remind them, like, I do this, this, and this now, even though my brain is like, you know, firing crazy stuff. We have to practice public health emergencies and our responses to them or will be slow and we’ll be biased in the response.
Global health outfits like the World Health Organization have been predicting coming pandemics for years. States and countries have made plans to respond. But Alison says it takes a real commitment to be ready to implement those plans.
AB: It just doesn’t happen.
NF: That’s why Alison is not all that hopeful that we won’t repeat our mistakes.
AB: We’ll forget about this. We’ll have a very short memory, unfortunately, about this pandemic and wouldn’t be surprised if in five or eight years we have another pandemic of this scale, like, we’re starting over from scratch again.
NF: So let’s recap: Chronically low public health funding meant the city was caught flat footed, instead of being prepared for all contingencies. That left the door open for Philly Fighting COVID to pitch a flashy plan, despite never having done this before, for the low cost of zero dollars. Desperate, the city cut corners and rushed into a bad deal. Andrei’s own ego gave him away, and the city cut bait.
But there was still one question stuck in my craw. In fact, it was related to something Andrei had said opening day at the convention center, one of the very first whiffs I got of trouble.
AD AT CONVENTION CENTER: This was the first testing site in Philadelphia that was free, you didn’t need symptoms, and you didn’t need a doctor’s note.
NF: That wasn’t true. There was another group who had done all the same things as Philly Fighting COVID. But there were some big differences: They’d started earlier. They’d done even more testing. They’d earned the trust of the community. They were led by people with years of medical experience. They would have stepped up and done what Philly Fighting COVID had done if they’d been asked.
CLIP, DR. ALA STANFORD: We were ready.
NF: But nobody asked them.
CLIP, AS: If it’s open and available for them, why is it not open and available for me?
NF: Next time, on the final episode of Half Vaxxed, we take a hard look at the impact of the city’s decision to choose a white man with no experience over a Black woman doctor who was already walking the walk.
CLIP, AS: Some people are just more comfortable working with white men.
NF: Who is left picking up the pieces and how do these choices fuel distrust in government?
CLIP, MICHAEL BROWN: It’s like, you tell us that you love us, but you continue to show us opposite.
NF: Half Vaxxed is reported by me, Nina Feldman, along with Alan Yu and Max Marin. Our producer is Buffy Gorrilla. Our engineer for this episode was Tina Kalikay. Mixing and sound design by Charlie Kaier. Original music by Max Marin. Our editor is Katie Colaneri with help from Danya Henninger, Joanne McLaughlin, and Maiken Scott. This podcast is a production of WHYY and Billy Penn.