Transcript: Ghosted (Half Vaxxed)
NINA FELDMAN, HOST: It was late Fall 2020. Andrei had a new laser focus: vaccines.
Philadelphia was preparing for the first doses of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccine, and Andrei was doing whatever he could to get his hands on them. He courted City Council members, health department staffers, and the people who run the stadium complexes. He wanted to go big.
But as he poured more and more into his new vaccine venture, Andrei eventually pulled the plug on Philly Fighting COVID’s community testing sites and the people that were relying on them. Those sites were the only credibility the group had, and that decision was one of many Andrei made that cascaded into Philly Fighting COVIDs explosive and sudden downfall.
From WHYY, this is Half Vaxxed. I’m your host, Nina Feldman.
The city still didn’t have much in the way of their own distribution plan, so Andrei was selling them hard on his.
And it looked like his sprezzatura, that cultivated confidence, was starting to pay off: he finally got an invite to the big kids table: the city’s vaccine advisory committee.
And now, he had a new wingman to bring with him. Someone who lent him an air of legitimacy: Dr. Jose Torradas.
Remember, Jose was an actual doctor with 10 years of emergency room experience. Jose says Andrei told him he’d help the group’s public image — he looked the part.
DR. JOSE TORRADAS: He kept on saying, “Oh, we have a George Clooney. We have this ER doctor. We’re going to put you in front of the cameras and this is going to be great for all of us.” He would just keep repeating the George Clooney thing to me over and over and over again.
NF: Appearances aside, Jose was excited to help out with the expansion to vaccines. He joined Philly Fighting COVID because he wanted to set up testing sites in Black and Latino neighborhoods. Now, he wanted to bring the vaccine to as many people as possible.
But the closer Andrei brought Jose to the inner workings of Philly Fighting COVID, the more red flags popped up. Jose says something just didn’t feel right about this.
JT: I just can smell this in the water that something is going to go wrong.
NF: Soon, he says he became so uncomfortable with the way the group was being run that he tried to take matters into his own hands. A power struggle erupted at the center of Philly Fighting COVID, just days before they were set to start vaccinating people.
Now, for the first time, Jose is going on the record. He’s going to tell you about the problems he saw inside the organization and what he tried to do about it.
My colleague Alan Yu is the one who first got to know Jose, so he’s going to walk us through how all this went down.
NF to ALAN YU: Alan, first off, where did Jose come from? He wasn’t an original Philly Fighting COVID staffer, was he?
AY: No he was not. Jose’s a young doctor who was working in the ER of a local hospital at the beginning of the pandemic. He left that job and was looking for another way to help. It was mostly volunteer work, but just like the other Philly Fighting COVID staffers we talked to, it looked like this group could offer that sense of purpose he was looking for.
JT: I mean, some of the most incredible, dedicated human beings that I’ve met were part of this Philly Fighting COVID project.
AY: Jose started out on the testing side, but soon, Andrei invited him to the vaccine advisory committee meetings with the city health department. Jose loved what Philly Fighting COVID was about, but he didn’t see Andrei as a good messenger.
JT: I mean, Zoom, everybody’s on camera, you could just see the cringe that would just kind of overtake some of their faces, as he would talk.
AY: Jose says Andrei would mock people or say that things were “stupid” and that came off as unprofessional. Jose says he promised the health department that he could be the adult in the room.
JT: What I told my contacts at the Department of Health was, “Hey, listen, I recognize based on your facial language that you’re not comfortable with this. And I recognize that without me, there’s no medical person here, really. And so I give you my word that this will get cleaned up.”
NF: And what did Jose and Andrei want to get out of these meetings?
AY: They wanted to show the city they had a plan, that as soon as the city called, they could start vaccinating. But, nobody thought that would happen until later, when the city would vaccinate the general public. Most likely that would be well into the new year. But then, Christmas came early.
On December 23rd, 2020 Amber Tirmal, the person at the health department in charge of the vaccine rollout, emailed Andrei and Jose with the offer Andrei had been waiting for: She asked if they wanted to talk about a mass vaccination clinic for health care workers.
JT: So it was, “Oh ok, well, you guys have a pre-registration site. you guys have access and you’ve been doing testing. So, you know, Andrei’s been pitching to us that we can make this happen.” And so that’s how that came to be.
AY: All of a sudden, Philly Fighting COVID was in overdrive. The clinic was scheduled for January 8th and that was just two weeks away
JT: So it just cranked everything up into high gear of what we really need to make this happen.
AY: First, they had to hire Jose full-time. Philly Fighting COVID needed a doctor’s licensing number to file with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to even get vaccines. Andrei wanted Jose to be that doctor. And he wanted Jose to be in front of the cameras on opening day at the Convention Center. And Jose was on board with all that.
JT: The pieces all seemed to be in place.
AY: This was a big opportunity for Jose as well. He could help distribute vaccines. He would appear on the news. And it could also mean a new career. Andrei was talking about turning Philly Fighting COVID into a for-profit company, one he promised Jose a stake in.
In the days before the vaccine clinic, Andrei showed Jose the incorporation papers for the new, for-profit entity he was starting, called Vax Populi, a play off the latin term “vox populi,” which means “voice of the people.” All Jose had to do was sign on to be the doctor on board.
But there was one person who thought things were moving a little too fast: Jose’s mother.
NF: Wait … his mom?
AY: Yeah, she’s a former fortune 100 executive.
JT: I recognize that I did not have the business background to be approaching this by myself. And so I asked her, I said, “Listen, can you be my adviser to this and can you just guide me through what I should be looking for?”
AY: So Jose set up a meeting with his mother and Andrei.
JT: Like, I’d walk away from the meeting thinking, “Oh, wow, like, this is great. This is all what we’re going to accomplish. This is going to be fantastic.”
AY: But he says, for his mother, this startup was full of landmines.
JT: And she would just be with a list of five things or more of “this didn’t sound right. I need to ask my people about this,” etc., including, “Let’s start with the nonprofit status and make sure that this is clean.”
AY: So, they started digging and things got murky fast. In some places on its website, Philly Fighting COVID was listed as a 501c3. In other places, it was a 501c4 — the difference being that those groups can do more lobbying and advocacy. When he asked Andrei about this, he says he always got a different answer.
Jose was on board with switching to a for-profit. He says he saw it as an opportunity to expand. Pay himself, pay the volunteers who’d been working for free, and offer vaccines to more people. Andrei, though, had larger ambitions. He wanted to perfect the model for vaccines and sell it like a franchise. He compared it to McDonald’s. And Jose says Andrei would talk openly about how he wanted to make a monumental amount of money on vaccines.
JT: It was “I want to retire after this.” Plain and simple.
NF: Right, and Andrei thought he’d be able to make so much money because he was going to bill insurance companies for each shot, and do millions and millions of shots.
AY: Yes. But Jose says Andrei resisted his questions about how the company would work, who the investors were, what the structure would be. He says he couldn’t get a straight answer.
JT: And then I’m thinking to myself, well, this — this is not good. This is not good because … there’s rules to this.
AY: Jose says the closer he got to Andrei, the less faith he had in him as a leader.
NF: Ok, but Jose knew that Andrei was kind of an opportunist, and about his whole “fake it ‘till you make it” philosophy. Why was this coming as a surprise all of a sudden?
AY: It happened now because Jose was starting to see the consequences of all that. They were about to be the public face of the city’s vaccine rollout — and Jose’s name and credibility were on the line. Jose did not think they could just make it up along the way any more. Jose had one move left. It was a risky one. He was going to go around Andrei.
JT: I went to essentially everybody that I thought was important in the organization except for Andrei and I said, “We need a readjustment of how this is going to work because it’s going to fail.”
AY: Jose had a pitch: an offshoot of Philly Fighting COVID. The same talented people without Andrei as the face of it. He’s too much of a liability. But Jose was a doctor. He worked well with the city. Maybe he could lead the group.
NF: So, Jose was staging a coup.
AY: Yes — And Jose says at first, it looked like the others might be on board. But soon, of course, Andrei found out. Jose knew it was over.
Depending on who you ask, either Jose quit or Andrei fired him.
JT: In the same phone call when I said I was out, it was also going to be a phone call where he told me that I was out.
AY: And after he was ousted, Jose called Amber Tirmal, his contact at the city’s health department. He says he wanted to warn her.
JT: And just said, “I’m out. And I think you guys need to look into this a little bit deeper. There’s this flip-flopping on the nonprofit, so just make sure that you have done your part because you’ve already given these guys grant money through the tests and you’re about to get in bed with them on the vaccines.”
NF: Wait a minute, he’s sending up a flare about a group whose leader he just tried to overthrow and failed? That seems a little suspect.
AY: Yes, you could read it as Jose was feeling burned and wanting to sabotage the group’s reputation with the city. But, he says, he was genuinely concerned that the same things that led him to distrust Andrei — the inability to answer questions, the murky business status, and Andrei’s demeanor — would end up being a real problem for the city as well.
NF: Huh, so the way he tells it, he was both looking out for himself and trying to do the right thing?
AY: Right. He says, despite everything that happened, he really wanted Philly Fighting COVID to work.
NF: Ok, so what did the city do with the warning?
AY: The health department would not let us talk to Amber for this podcast. They did confirm that Jose and Amber talked, but did not say anything about how she handled his warning.
Whatever happened, we do know that exchange would come back to haunt the city.
A few days later, Philly Fighting COVID launched its first vaccine clinic at the convention center. And the person in front of the camera was not “George Clooney” anymore — it was Andrei.
[ theme music]
NF: And while he was basking in the spotlight, some of the Philadelphians hit hardest by the pandemic were just out of frame, waiting for the lifeline he’d promised. But Andrei had turned his back on them. And that would come back to bite him.
That’s after the break. This is Half Vaxxed.
NF: Welcome back to Half Vaxxed, I’m your host, Nina Feldman.
At the same time Philly Fighting COVID was careening into the vaccination game, they still had testing sites to run. They had partnered with a collective of grassroots groups in Northwest Philadelphia to plan a big testing event for Martin Luther King Day.
At this point in the pandemic, COVID-19 was a very real and present threat. An average of a dozen people were dying per day in Philly alone. While the vaccine was brand new and extremely limited, testing was in high demand.
Michael Brown is the head of the Action for Justice Collective, one of the groups planning the event. He’d been working closely with Jose, but once Jose was gone, Andrei took his place. And Michael says Andrei had a different vision for Martin Luther King Day. He came to his first planning meeting, guns a-blazin’.
MICHAEL BROWN: So he gets on, “Hey, everybody!” All this energy and everything. “You know, just letting you know, you guys, we’re excited, to work with your community. Thank you for letting us in. We appreciate it, you know, we know it means a lot. Blah, blah, blah.” OK, alright. No problem.
NF: And then all of a sudden, he changed course.
MB: And then he says, “Well, you know, I want to be transparent and direct.”
NF: Michael says Andrei went on to explain that now, his group had just landed a big vaccine deal with the city.
MB: “And so instead of testing, we’re going to come and we’re going to administer vaccines.”
NF: Michael says his community was not ready for vaccines. It was still very early on in the rollout, and people were wary. They didn’t want to be first. They needed more information.
MB: Over the years, the medical community has never been totally forthright with the Black community and all of the ways that they’ve treated us, where you, you never know whether you are a part of an experiment, whether what you’re getting is a placebo.
NF: For Michael, the first step to getting people comfortable with vaccines was education. But he says that was not the offer on the table from Andrei. It was vaccines or nothing. He says Andrei really tried to sell it.
MB: “You guys are gonna have access to it before anybody. And you’re really going to want to get it right now, because once it gets started, if you don’t take it now, your community may not even have a chance to get vaccines.”
NF: Michael says he and others on the call expressed their doubts. But Andrei just doubled down.
MB: “We don’t really believe in the testing anymore. It really doesn’t do anything for the community and it just panics people.”
NF: In that one interview we had with Andrei after this happened, we asked him if he said all this. He denied saying testing was irrelevant, and insisted that his point about panic was misconstrued.
ANDREI DOROSHIN: You know, actions speak louder than words and we’ve done more testing than almost anybody. I suggest you go back to those community partners that are giving you a hard time and ask them if we’ve tested their people and they will say “yes.”
NF: So, that’s what we did. And it turned out, Michael Brown wasn’t the only one mad at Andrei for bailing on testing.
Siria Rivera set up a deal with Philly Fighting COVID in December. They were going to test people at the community center in the mostly Puerto Rican neighborhood where she works.
Philly Fighting COVID was scheduled to come to the center twice a week. Siria says they would often cancel in advance, but it always came with an apology, and an excuse. Leadership changes, crossed wires.
SIRIA RIVERA: So I was trying to be understanding that they were going quickly and trying to adjust.
NF: Then one day, right around the holidays, Siria was on her way to open up the center for testing when she got an email.
SR: Five minutes before they were supposed to be here, I get a message like, “Sorry, we can’t make it today.” Basically, “We’re discontinuing our testing.” That was it, that was the conversation.
NF: No apology. No excuse. She was frantic. People were showing up at the center. She called and texted and emailed anyone from Philly Fighting COVID she’d ever talked to. Nothing.
SR: I literally never heard back.
NF: One broken promise led to the next. Pastor Cean James had arranged for Philly Fighting COVID to provide testing in the parking lot of his church. They did a trial run and everything went well. They were all set to start testing on a regular basis. But then, radio silence.
REV. CEAN JAMES: I heard nothing back from them. No response to any texts, no response to emails. They really just like completely ghosted us.
NF: On Jan. 10, two days after their vaccination clinic opened, Philly Fighting COVID posted on its social media accounts that it would be permanently suspending all testing operations.
Over and over again, Philly Fighting COVID boasted that the city had trusted them to do vaccines because of how successful their testing sites were. It was the only medical experience — and the only legitimacy they had. Now, they’d dropped it overnight. And all the community groups they’d been building relationships with were left in the lurch.
But most people didn’t know that yet. National media certainly didn’t. They were painting Philly Fighting COVID as a model for how to get shots in arms fast. Here’s a segment from the Today Show, right after the vaccine clinic opened.
CLIP, THE TODAY SHOW: “… And there’s a 22-year-old wiz kid in Philadelphia who may have figured out a way to do it. NBC’s Stephanie Gosk live with his story. Steph, this sounds like a pretty cool kid.” “Yeah he definitely is, Craig, and you know, the success of this vaccination program…”
NF: Philly Fighting COVID’s whole pitch was that to vaccinate huge numbers of people quickly, they’d have to cut through red tape and throw best practices for health care out the window. They would run the site like a factory. But beneath the glowing press coverage, the vaccination site was starting to look like it might not be the well oiled machine Andrei had claimed it would be.
Some problems were pretty basic: Ongoing internet issues meant that Philly Fighting COVID ran the WiFi to register all their patients off one staffer’s personal hotspot on his phone.
Others were more serious.
Philly is 42% Black. COVID hit Black and Latino communities harder than any other groups, partly because testing was so hard to come by in those neighborhoods. That’s why the city promised that for the vaccine, things would be different. Equitable. Transparent.
But Philly Fighting COVID couldn’t provide any racial breakdown for the people they vaccinated that first weekend. They blamed it on a glitch in the cloud. It was looking like Philly Fighting COVID was as bad at tracking data for vaccines as they had been for testing.
And people were really confused about the relationship between the city and Philly Fighting COVID. Members of the public, the Philadelphia medical community, and even an intelligence analyst from the Pennsylvania State Police wrote to the health department, trying to figure out if the clinic, or the website to sign up for it was legit.
MONTAGE: “Amber, colleagues [at Merakey] are wondering if this vaccination event being advertised at the convention center is real …” “When you click on this link it says ‘this may be a scam and someone may be trying to fool you …’” “The reason that I’m seeking a way to contact them is that after submitting a large amount of personal information to them as part of the vaccination scheduling process, I was unable to schedule an appointment …” “Thank you for reaching out to the health department about this issue.”
NF: Amber Tirmal at the health department patiently responded to each email explaining that Philly Fighting COVID was indeed a real organization, but had some kinks to work out. But soon, all that confusion started to seep into the way the city was talking about Philly Fighting COVID, too.
From the start, the group had described their vaccine pre-registration website as the sort of feeder website for the city. Thousands of people were adding their names to it every day, thinking that’s how they would be notified when it was their turn to get the shot.
But when we asked the city how exactly all that would work, the health department told us they wouldn’t be using Philly Fighting COVID’s online registry — at all. They weren’t checking it. In fact, the city would be setting up its own pre-registration site. Here’s the health commissioner at the time, Dr. Tom Farley, during one of the city’s weekly press briefings over Zoom.
DR. TOM FARLEY: Let me be clear — I think there’s been a lot of confusion on this, so I’m glad this question came up. There is a website that was set up by an organization called Philly Fighting COVID. That is not the city’s website. They have set up that website. That is not the city’s website.
NF: But that didn’t make any sense. Just a few days before, when the clinic opened, the health department had encouraged everyone to sign up on Philly Fighting COVID’s website. There was even a city logo on the landing page. Why would the city put this distance between itself and Philly Fighting COVID now?
Andrei was just as perplexed as we were. He hounded the health department staff, pleading with them to clarify that Philly Fighting COVID and the city were in fact working together. But it was too late. The city had already started to back away.
That first weekend of vaccinating health care workers turned into a second and then a third. By now, vaccine eligibility had expanded. People over 75, people with chronic conditions, and some essential workers could get the shot now.
And the problems at Philly Fighting COVID’s clinic were getting even worse.
Appointments were supposed to be by invitation only, but some people who got invited were sharing the link to sign up online with friends and family. For the record, this problem was not unique to Philly Fighting COVID; lots of groups who used this software had to deal with this.
Still, the city didn’t like it, so Philly Fighting COVID promised them they would purge their registration logs of anyone who hadn’t been sent the link directly.
The thing is, that purge included people who were eligible for the vaccine: older people, people with diabetes and heart disease. They hadn’t been invited to make an appointment yet, but they got the link and they were shocked when they were turned away.
JILLIAN HORN: And they were kind of just laughing in our faces, like, “Sorry, come back another day.”
NF: Jillian Horn saw this play out. Somebody sent her the link to get vaccinated.
JH: There was literally 85-year-old, 90-year-old people standing there with printed appointment confirmation saying, “I don’t understand why I can’t get vaccinated, I’m 85.” They were in wheelchairs and on walkers. And these nurses were just looking at them being like, “Oh, we’re so sorry.” But talking like they were trying to return a sweater. It was terrible.
SIDDHANT JANARDHANAN: A lot of people got angry and got a lot of shouting at us.
NF: Siddhant Janardhanan — he goes by Sid — was one of the staffers turning people away. He said it was the hardest part of the job. Sid remembers one man who’d been sent the link through his work.
SJ: I was trying to explain to him, like, “We can’t do that. We can’t just let you in because your employer just sent you the link.” And I promised him, like, “In the next couple of months, we will have that link for you.” And, well, after that day, we never got to.
NF: To add insult to injury, there did end up being enough shots left for some of those people at the end of the day. And that miscalculation would lead to Philly Fighting COVID’s downfall.
That evening, half an hour before the clinic was supposed to wrap up, Philly Fightin COVID staffers started going around telling volunteers and nurses to put out a call to their families and friends to come get the leftover vaccine doses so that they wouldn’t go to waste. Katrina Lapinsky was a nurse on site that day. She says it was like a free for all.
KATRINA LIPINSKY: They’re like running around like kids at the end of the day, vaccinating each other.
NF: Then, she saw Andrei do something that horrified her.
KL: He walked from the vaccine area over to his belongings and packed I don’t know how many vaccines, I would guess maybe 10 or 15, in a plastic bag with the CDC vaccination record cards over to his stuff. He packed it up and he left with another staff member.
NF: Later, a Snapchat photo circulated of Andrei with the syringes in hand at a friend’s place, preparing to inject them himself. Katrina says she knows that vaccines were in short supply. Finding a way not to waste them might have been ethical — in some ways.
KL: But to take the vaccines off site — the idea of somebody who’s not a licensed health care professional, vaccinating their own friends with or without observation period … I mean, that certainly was not the right thing to do.
NF: That was a Saturday. Philly Fighting COVID had just wrapped up their third weekend of vaccinations. And by that time, we had published more about the group, about how they had completely abandoned community testing.
So they were still in the spotlight, but not in a good way. Sid remembers the vibe among Philly Fighting COVID staff over the weekend.
SJ: Everyone was scared. It was like being on a sinking ship.
NF: But he says Andrei told them to keep their chins up. Andrei said the press was just “jealous of what they had accomplished” and “envious” of the lives they would save.
That Monday, Andrei was back to business. He wrote to Dr. Caroline Johnson with the city, who was running the vaccine rollout, to ask how many vaccine doses he could expect for future clinics. She replied with a single line: “Andrei. Things are souring.”
That afternoon, the Philly Fighting COVID team had their usual staff meeting to debrief the weekend’s clinic. After it wrapped up, Sid headed into a jujitsu class.
SJ: In the middle of class, my instructor, like, he hands me the thing — like, “Is this real?” And it just says, “Philly fighting COVID loses city contract.” And I’m like, “What?” And that was, yeah, that was heartbreaking. Just hit me like a truck.
NF: Less than three weeks after opening day at the Convention Center, the city health department announced it was cutting ties with Philly Fighting COVID.
NEWS CLIPS: “Sudden word today that the city is ending its relationship with Philly Fighting COVID…” “…Separation of the city of Philadelphia from an organization chosen to vaccinate thousands of its citizens.”
NF: The announcement came as a shock — not just to staffers like Sid, but to the whole city. This was an enormous disruption in a process where time was of the essence.
CLIP, COUNCILMEMBER CINDY BASS: There are lives on the line and everyone is asking when and where can I get my vaccine?
NF: Thousands of people who had received their first of two doses were left panicked, half vaxxed, desperate for answers about what would happen to them.
NEWS CLIP, REPORTER: How will you get all of these people vaccinated for their second dose?
NF: And Andrei was in total denial. This wasn’t over for him yet.
CLIP, AD: At the first smell of gunpowder, the head of the health department ran.
NF: Next time on Half Vaxxed: Who let this happen? Was someone in power doing favors for Andrei?
CLIP, COUNCILMEMBER DAVID OH: How did they get a contract?
NF: Or was the health department just falling down on the job?
CLIP, COUNCILMEMBER ISAIAH THOMAS: So in your department, like, do people Google folks?
NF: And, where has the head of the health department been this whole time?
CLIP, TF: I hope you can see how on the surface this seemed like a good thing.
NF: Half Vaxxed is reported by me, Nina Feldman, along with Alan Yu and Max Marin. Our producer is Buffy Gorrilla. Our engineers for this episode were Tina Kalikay and Mike Villers. 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. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.