Transcript: ‘Shooting for the Heavens’ (Half Vaxxed)
NINA FELDMAN, HOST: It was 8 a.m. on a chilly Friday in early January. Inside the Pennsylvania Convention Center, nurses scurried around in scrubs, preparing trays of syringes. TV cameras filed in and set up for their perfect shot. Things were abuzz with excitement.
NEWS CLIP: A mass vaccination site is now up and running in Center City Philadelphia for health care workers. The site at the Convention Center opened this morning…
NF: This was the launch of Philly’s first mass vaccination clinic.
After nearly a year of death and isolation from COVID-19, this was one of the first moments where you could really start to see the way out of the pandemic. It felt hopeful.
Outside, a line of eager health care workers was snaking around the block. At the time, they were the only ones eligible for the vaccine.
But they were not the only ones who wanted it. These first doses were like liquid gold.
MONTAGE: “I’m in category 1 because I’m old.” “I can’t wait to get it.” “I believe this will save lives.”
NF: At the center of this clinic was a young, charismatic CEO who had gone from a first-year grad student to a pandemic hero in a matter of months.
CLIP, ANDREI DOROSHIN AT PRESS CONFERENCE: Our six months of work has led us to this day. And for as long as you need us to be here, we are here to fight for you.
NF: Andrei Doroshin started out 3D printing face shields for hospital workers, then moved on to running COVID testing sites. Now, he had steered his organization called Philly Fighting COVID to be at the helm of the vaccination effort for a major American city.
This was no small matter. If you remember, the rollout got off to a rocky start here and across the country. And there was a lot of concern about making sure the people hit hardest by the pandemic, Black and Latino people, would get protection. And this guy, Andrei — he came in with an army of energetic do-gooders, flashy powerpoint slides, and a plan.
But within three short weeks, his entire operation would come crashing down in spectacular fashion.
MONTAGE, NEWS CLIPS: “Sudden word today, the city is ending its relationship with Philly Fighting COVID…” “It’s called Philly Fighting COVID. So what went wrong?”
NF: It ground the city’s vaccine campaign to a screeching halt, leaving Philadelphia officials holding the bag.
CLIP, COUNCILMEMBER CINDY BASS: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, we were duped.
NF: From WHYY, this is Half Vaxxed. I’m your host, Nina Feldman. I reported this story in real time with my colleagues Alan Yu and Max Marin. We chased down secret tips from sources, grilled the city with questions, and had front row seats to the drama as it unfolded. Now, over the next five episodes, we’re going to put it all together and explain how this could have possibly happened.
Why did Philadelphia officials hand the keys for the vaccine rollout to an organization led by a bunch of mostly white, self-described college kids with no medical experience? And who suffered as a result?
CLIP, MICHAEL BROWN: It’s just one more reason that I got to watch the hand that’s feeding me, instead of just accepting what’s being fed to me.
NF: And for the first time, we’ll hear from the person inside Philly Fighting COVID who tried to warn the city and prevent all of this from happening.
CLIP, DR. JOSE TORRADAS: I can just smell this in the water that something is going to go wrong.
NF: Was Andrei Doroshin a grifter? Or was he an opportunist, trying to work the system the way so many had before him?
CLIP, ANDREI: I mean, we’re a private business, this is our decision to make.
NF: Was all of this a total fluke? Or as the delta variant drives yet another surge of COVID cases, does this tell us something bigger about our public health system?
CLIP, ALISON BUTTENHEIM: We’ll have a very short memory, unfortunately, about this pandemic.
[theme music fades out]
NF: So how did the city end up working so closely with Philly Fighting COVID? What did health officials see in them?
They saw what Amanda Hughes saw: a young, scrappy group with a can-do attitude and a drive to help. If Andrei Doroshin was the captain, Amanda would become a first lieutenant.
Amanda was a sophomore biology major at Temple University in Philadelphia. She usually commuted to campus from Northeast Philly, where she lived with her mom and stepdad.
Back then, everyone was afraid to leave the house because we knew less about how COVID spread. Amanda’s only escape was a daily trip to the tiny airport right near her house. She’d throw on a mask, hop in her car, and drive.
AMANDA HUGHES: Just to watch the sunset, something that means so much to me. Just little things. And I would only be there for 10 minutes and I’d be getting my phone blowing up like. “Where the F are you? Oh my gosh, get home! What are you doing?” I’m like, “Please just give me this, give me these 15 minutes.”
NF: It was her parents making sure she was safe. She felt totally stifled.
Normally, she worked two jobs waiting tables to pay her way through school. For a little extra cash, she helped the landlord of a big apartment building near Temple’s campus paint rooms, clean and do odd jobs between tenants. Now, she didn’t have any of that.
Amanda had always wanted to do something bigger than herself, and the pandemic seemed like the perfect time to jump into action. She heard about something called the medical reserve corps — a group of volunteer doctors and nurses who were called up to help in times of crisis. She thought that sounded perfect, so she asked her parents.
AMANDA: And they were so mad. They were like, “Amanda, why? Like, why would you want to do this?” And I was like, “Guys, pandemics come around once every hundred years kind of deal.” Not that it’s like something I’m excited about, but you know that gut feeling, like, it’s now or never. Act now or sit back and regret it.
NF: So Amanda pulled the trigger.
AMANDA: I went behind my parents back and I registered for the Philadelphia Medical Reserve Corps.
NF: She asked the landlord of the building where she’d been working if there was any chance there might be a free room she could stay in while she volunteered. To her surprise, he said yes. So for the first time in her life, she packed her things and left home. It was emotional — for her, and her parents.
AMANDA: They had put together a whole care basket with, like, written notes on the toilet paper, like saying they’re sorry and that they were, like, wishing me luck and that they’re proud of me.
NF: She got to her new apartment and settled in, but she never heard back from the Medical Reserve Corps.
Then, one day, her lab partner told her about one of his friends who had started a new nonprofit, making face shields for health care workers with 3D printers. He tagged her on the group’s Facebook post looking for volunteers.
AMANDA: As soon as I got that link, I signed up for every single shift.
NF: The group operated out of an old glassblowing warehouse under the elevated subway in Fishtown, a hip neighborhood not far from campus.
AMANDA: And I walked in the first day and I was the only girl, which was fine. I’ve always felt like one of the bros. So I just kind of introduced myself and I think we all hit it off right off the bat. I had never met so many interesting people in one space.
NF: There was Andrei Doroshin, the Drexel University graduate student running the show.
AMANDA: Like, Andrei at the time, studying astronaut brains and apparently with his history in film…
NF: Then there was his number two, the group’s chief operating officer, Victor Shugart…
AMANDA: Victor was a former Marine, but then he worked at a nuclear plant and he had experience with that. And now he’s, like, trying to do his own engineering career.
NF: There was Sergei, Andrei’s 19-year-old brother, who was the jokester — always playing and dancing, keeping things light and fun.
Amanda would give Sergei a ride to and from the warehouse and they would sing together. It was a blast.
[tape of Sergei singing “S.O.S.” by ABBA in the car]
AMANDA: I felt so stimulated, like mentally, I never felt more culturally worldly, aware in my life of what was happening in the world. I felt so accepted, like, the internship where you see, you know, these nerds get together for Google and, like, they solve problems and they, like, don’t judge is like the best thing ever. I felt, I want these people at my wedding. I remember saying that like multiple times, like, these are going to be my people in life.
[clip of “S.O.S.” by ABBA]
NF: As the summer wore on, there was less of a need for PPE, so the group started talking about what else they could do.
AMANDA: We would just start brainstorming for fun, like about different world issues. Like, all we have is time. And we, like, “Oh, did you hear? Like, testing’s apparently, like, really hard to come by.” We were like, “What can we do?” And all these engineer brains and stuff were like, “Oh, maybe we could make test kits.”
NF: As they looked into it, they learned it might be hard to manufacture the kits themselves, but they could administer them. They got on a call with Quest Diagnostics, one of the two major American labs that were processing covid tests. Quest explained how it could work.
AMANDA: You don’t have to do anything but collect the materials, provide the testing, and that’s it. So you’re like, “Wow, that would work out. Like … how is this covered? Like, we want this to be a free testing site.” And they’re like, “Well, like they have the CARES Act right now that, you know, is supposed to cover these pandemic costs.” So instead of billing insurance, we would just bill the federal government for the CARES Act. That’s actually amazing. Like, why aren’t more people doing that?
NF: Amanda says they figured that must mean there was a real gap in testing. They could be the ones to fill it. So they got to work.
AMANDA: I sat down and had a map up on my laptop of Philadelphia and I called every building that had a parking lot that I could see from a sky view map — churches, schools, whatever.
NF: Finally, she made contact with someone at The Fillmore, a live music venue shut down because of the pandemic. She and some of the others visited the site, and pretty soon they were up and running.
The testing site took off, and Amanda had a new title: she was head of testing and volunteer coordinator. She reached out to the members of her undergrad medical fraternity to see if anyone wanted to pick up a shift. The response was overwhelming. Annabelle Alrez was one of those volunteers.
ANNABELLE: You go there, you’re helping people, but you’re having fun, you’re enjoying what you’re doing, and it was just like, who would not want that? It was a job opportunity that everyone wanted to do.
NF: Annabelle was also pre-med at Temple. She says it was refreshing to be around other students who really wanted to get out there and help during the pandemic. Philly Fighting COVID emphasized that the testing was for underserved communities. Back then, free testing without an appointment was not that easy to come by. Plus, she says, it looked great on her resume.
ANNABELLE: And it was, like, almost like a ticket into schools or a ticket into jobs and stuff like that. Like, people if you told them you worked as a volunteer there, people would be like, “Oh my God, it’s amazing. Like, you’re a hero,” like, all that stuff.
NF: And it was fun. On her first day, Annabelle says Andrei gave everyone champagne at the end of the shift to celebrate. She was supposed to be reimbursed $10 for a HIPAA certification. Andrei didn’t pay her, but he did offer her something.
ANNABELLE: He just gave me a bag of coffee. At the time I was like, that’s so funny. Like he’s the boss. That’s chill, he’s giving alcohol and coffee. That’s, like, the best job ever. I don’t have this in my hospital. Alcohol at the end? Like, he gave me a whole thing, a handle of vodka. And I was like, this is lit. Like I’d come home like, “Guys, look what I got from work!”
NF: For the record, the vodka wasn’t totally random — it was because Philly Fighting COVID had an arrangement with a vodka distillery nearby. They would test their employees, and in return, get vodka for their workers.
Anyway, Annabelle says Amanda was truly the wheels of the operation.
ANNABELLE: If you had any questions, you would text Amanda. She was like the mom between classes, dropping people off, picking people up, dropping food, all that stuff.
NF: She made sure volunteers were trained and properly certified and that everyone was where they were supposed to be when they were supposed to be there. She gave them a ride to and from the testing site and let them rotate through her car to take classes on Zoom. And the testing site operated like a well oiled machine — and one gaining steam. Sometimes they’d test more than 200 people a day.
Soon, the city of Philadelphia took notice. One day over the summer, a woman named Colleen Tingey from the city’s health department emailed Amanda to learn more about their testing operation. She wanted to include Philly Fighting COVID on a citywide map of testing sites. They set up a call.
AMANDA: That was an honor to be recognized. Like, wow, we are going to be, like, this is an officiality kind of mark for us.
NF: On the call, Colleen asked if they wanted to apply for city funding. At the time, Andrei was paying for Philly Fighting COVID out of pocket. So Amanda, Andrei, Victor, and a few others drafted a proposal for city funding to test underserved populations. They were shocked when they actually got it.
AMANDA: Oh, my God, I never dealt with money like that. We were granted a quarter million dollars roughly to operate through the year.
NF: The clock on Amanda’s free living arrangement had expired, but now that she was getting paid, she could afford rent. Before signing a lease, she double checked with the leadership team. They assured her they were in it for the long haul. Now, she was too.
[fade up theme music]
When we come back, Andrei starts to think big. Like, Elon Musk big. This is Half Vaxxed.
NF: From WHYY, This is Half Vaxxed, I’m your host Nina Feldman.
Now that Philly Fighting COVID had funding from the city, they could bring on people with actual medical experience to help them expand.
Jose Torradas had been an emergency room doctor for 10 years. But when the pandemic hit, he didn’t feel safe in the hospital where he was working. There was limited PPE and he ended up getting sick. He had to isolate from his wife, who was pregnant at the time. It all felt so high risk, and so he left. Now, he wanted to make up for lost time. He wanted to help protect the most vulnerable during the pandemic — especially Latinos.
DR. JOSE TORRADAS: You talk about how patients do better when their practitioners speak their language and understand their culture. So I mean, all these things were just lining up.
NF: As a requirement for their city contract, Philly Fighting COVID was supposed to offer testing to underserved populations — usually that meant Black and Latino communities where testing rates were low, and COVID rates were high.
So far though, they had only set up at The Fillmore, which is in a mostly white, gentrified neighborhood.
This was where Jose thought he could help.
He was really impressed by the dedication of these college students — some of them had taken semesters off to do this. They worked so hard — many of them for no pay — and were able to be quick and nimble in ways that larger organizations like hospitals just couldn’t be.
JOSE: It’s Philly at its core, right? These undergrads, these people that you would never think that necessarily would be able to stand up what they’re doing and they’re doing it. So the underdog story was pulling at me and when I would describe it to people, that’s what it was.
NF: He felt like the group’s energy combined with his expertise would mean they could actually get things done.
JOSE: I remember one of them telling me that you’re like you’re the piece we’re missing of making this work.
NF: Meanwhile, Philly Fighting COVID’s CEO, Andrei Doroshin was inching farther and farther away from the day-to-day operations of testing, and was angling to get more involved in the city’s plan for vaccine distribution — the next step in getting out of the pandemic.
He’d made contacts at the health department from the testing contract, which he used to connect with the people running the vaccine advisory committee.
The committee was a virtual room full of researchers, doctors, hospital administrators — a whole range of experts thinking through the messaging and logistics of the city’s vaccine rollout. It was led by Dr. Caroline Johnson — the deputy health commissioner and head of the city’s COVID-19 vaccine response.
Alison Buttenheim is a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, who studies how to get people to take vaccines and she sits on the committee.
During one meeting, Alison was suggesting some behavioral science strategies that the health department could use to increase vaccine uptake, and Andrei started privately messaging her.
ALISON: I mean, I’ll say I was impressed with his grasp of behavioral science. He’d obviously done some reading, some Googling at least. His ideas for how to run the registration process, the pre-reg process, made sense. He wanted to sort of capture people’s enthusiasm even before there was good availability, wanted to make sure they had a long, you know, roster of people that they could immediately ping when the vaccine was available. That all made a lot of sense.
NF: Alison wanted to collect evidence on which types of messaging worked best to get people vaccinated. But she says public health departments weren’t all that interested in that type of research. They just didn’t have the time. But Andrei did.
ALISON: He did also bring that kind of entrepreneurial approach and the kind of gleam in his eye and realized, which it’s hard for public health people to do, I think, realized the extent to which a mass vaccine clinic is a logistics operation. And he got that.
NF: Allison, Andrei, and a few other colleagues started working on a research proposal together. She was excited to get to work once they started vaccinating people. And Alison says, sure, Andrei seemed kind of young. But he also was thinking about things in a way that no one else was.
Now that he had the ear of the city, Andrei was ready to start bringing his team up to speed with his plan to pivot to vaccines.
[fade up sound of Andrei on the rooftop: “Alright, everybody, ready to party?”]
On a cool October night, he brought them all together on the rooftop of Amanda’s apartment building. He invited 15 staff and volunteers. More watched along on Zoom. Amanda set up a snack board and a bar on the roof, and everyone dressed up for the first time in months.
Andrei kicked things off by comparing the group to Ocean’s 11.
ANDREI: Alright everybody, so welcome once again to Doroshin’s 15. That’s the joke. Go f**k yourself. Ok, hit the next slide.
NF: Andrei was prone to cursing, as you can tell. He stood in front of a giant slide screen in a dark blazer, city lights twinkling in the background and flipped through a powerpoint presentation.
ANDREI: I definitely don’t think that any of you guys saw yourselves in six months on a rooftop with a bunch of people that you probably didn’t know, trying to fight a global virus. So this is definitely nutty for all of us, definitely for me. But, you know, I guess the point is is that Earth is closed, right? Literally.
Annabelle Alrez was watching on Zoom. She says the meeting felt exciting.
ANNABELLE: To hear that this company was about to get like the Pfizer vaccines and, or Moderna, and we were going to be one of the top people in Philly, like, I was excited. I was like, oh, my God. Like, I get to say, I work for a company that gets this vaccine. You went from testing to the vaccine. It was a whole thing.
ANDREI: The last person to get a shot in their arm, that’s when we reach herd immunity, that’s when things go back to normal. How quickly that last person gets that injection is going to dictate how well we’ve done. So just let that sink in. It’s all a game of time. How quickly can we get our jobs done efficiently?
NF: Andrei and his executive team had done their research. He explained how they’d get their doses directly from the city. He talked about how the rollout would go in phases. He laid out his vision for setting up five giant vaccination hubs across Philadelphia.
ANDREI: This is a wholly Elon Musk, just shooting for the heavens kind of thing. You want to have a preemptive strike on the vaccine and basically beat everybody in Philadelphia to it.
NF: There were hints of “move fast and break things,” the mantra of Silicon Valley, sprinkled throughout the presentation. Andrei had a plan for everything from where patients would park to how the traffic would flow in and out of each neighborhood.
And he had a plan for the money.
ANNABELLE: I remember he went through the slides. In one slide, he was like, “OK, this is the most important slide, the one I know all of you guys are most excited about.” And it was like, “How are we going to make money from this?”
ANDREI: Now, this is the juicy slide, how are we getting paid?
ANNABELLE: That was the moment I was like, what in the world? Like, this is a nonprofit, like, how are you going to make money from this?
NF: To be clear, even nonprofit organizations in medicine have to get paid to keep the lights on and pay their employees. A lot of nonprofits even have a saying, “No mission without margins.” And making a profit in health care is common. Tons of hospitals, pharmacies, and pharmaceutical companies, including the ones that made the COVID-19 vaccines, are highly profitable.
But Annabelle says this was the first she’d heard about money from Philly Fighting Covid. It surprised her. Here’s how Andrei explained it would work.
ANDREI: We’re going to be billing insurance companies $24 per vaccine.
NF: In the United States, the COVID-19 vaccine is free for anyone who wants it — patients aren’t expected to pay anything at all. The federal government gives the raw materials to hospitals and clinics for free, like syringes and vials full of vaccine. But clinics and hospitals are allowed to bill insurance companies or federal programs like Medicaid or Medicare for their time. That’s the $24 Andrei is talking about here.
Andrei wanted to vaccinate more than a million people at two shots each.
ANDREI: I just told you how many vaccines we want to do. You can do the math in your head.
NF: As long as he kept costs low by using volunteer labor and partnering with locations that would let him use space for cheap, Andrei’s plan could indeed bring in a lot of cash. But that would only really work if Philly Fighting COVID operated on a massive scale.
That’s why Andrei had his sights set on some of the city’s largest venues — stadiums, arenas, and the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
[fade up theme music]
CLIP, ANDREI AT PRESS CONFERENCE: Our six months of work has led us to this day.
NF: But who was bankrolling Andrei’s noble fight?
CLIP, ANDREI INTERVIEW: I can’t actually tell you those specifics, but I can tell you it’s a really nice Mercedes.
NF: Soon, money starts to rule everything around Philly Fighting COVID.
ANNABELLE: That’s when I started hearing people talking about, like, how much money they’re going to make and how rich they’re going to be.
NF: And the sixth largest city in the country buys into a plan crafted by a 22-year-old grad student with a “fake it till you make it” philosophy.
JOSE: It was basically just exude supreme confidence, that even if you’ve never done this before, you make it seem like you’ve done it a thousand times.
NF: That’s next time, on Half Vaxxed.
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 Al Banks. 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. Special thanks to Anne Marie Baldonado and Dan Gorenstein. This podcast is a production of WHYY and Billy Penn. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
[fade out theme music]