Philly Fighting COVID

Council Grills Philly Health Commissioner Over Vaccine Debacle, with Few New Details

In a marathon council committee hearing Friday, Philly's health commissioner told City Council that former deputy Dr. Caroline Johnson and her staff made the call to work with Philly Fighting COVID.

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As Philadelphia reckons with its coronavirus vaccine rollout two weeks after cutting ties with a health startup run by a 22-year-old grad student, the city's health commissioner could offered few new details to City Council in a more than hearing that lasted more than four hours and was still going.

Multiple times under questioning from councilmembers, Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley said he did not know the answers to questions about which specific health department staff members interacted with the company Philly Fighting COVID. He said the arrangement to give the group doses was under the purview of his now-former deputy, Dr. Caroline Johnson.

Farley said more specifics would come in a report from the city's Inspector General Alexander DeSantis, who was tasked with investigating how the city came to give Philly Fighting COVID nearly 7,000 doses of vaccine.

The city cut ties with PFC - as Farley has said, and reiterated in the hearing - after an Inquirer reporter asked him about PFC's change to for-profit status and a privacy policy that indicated the company could sell patient data. The company's CEO, Andrei Doroshin, has told reporters he never intended to sell patient data, believing it to be unlawful. Doroshin said the privacy policy contained boilerplate language pulled from a website, and was put up to stop people from "freaking out."

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“I would actually like to thank Andrei Doroshin,” Councilmember Cindy Bass, chair of the council's Public Health and Human Services committee, said early in the hearing. “His incredible greed and enormous sense of entitlement, through the attention of the press, uncovered the debacle before us. If it were not for his 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.”

Farley also said he was unhappy with PFC using the city seal on its registration site, which went online before the city had its own at phila.gov/vaccineinterest.

Here are some highlights. The full hearing should be available on the City Council Youtube channel several hours after it ends.

Referring to Inspector General

After Mayor Jim Kenney asked for a report on what happened, the responsibility was initially going to fall to the health department to investigate itself. That is now the responsibility of the Inspector General's office.

Farley said he is not allowed to ask his staff questions about what happened with Philly Fighting COVID, and could only answer Council's questions based off his own memory. Farley said doing so would jeopardize the IG report. DeSantis, the Inspector General, disputed this, telling The Philadelphia Inquirer he did not tell Farley who he could or could not talk to.

Kenney's Chief of Staff, Jim Engler, told Council the report will take no longer than 30 days to complete.

Farley acknowledges 'missteps'

“Remember that the vaccination work is still in its infancy. The first vaccines arrived weeks ago, but we will likely be at this for at least a year,” Farley said. "With our urgency, the Department of Public Health has made missteps in its vaccination initiative, I acknowledge these missteps and ask the residents of Philadelphia allow us the time to make things right.”

Who let PFC have doses?

Farley could not answer a question from Bass regarding who approved the arrangement with Philly Fighting COVID, but indicated it was someone who reported to Johnson.

“I think that those are excellent questions," Farley told Bass before the hearing reached its 1-hour mark. "I want to know the answers to those questions myself. Those are going to be the central questions of the Inspector General’s report. Who was it that first spoke to this organization, what information did they look at, what steps did they go through to make this decision? I was informed the decision was made, I was not the one who was doing those conversations or that vetting."

Farley said during November and December 2020, he had his hands full overseeing COVID-19 containment efforts like testing, quarantining, contact tracing, considering restrictions, and the data documenting cases.

He says he delegated vaccine responsibilities to Johnson, who has decades of experience with vaccines and worked on getting doses distributed during the H1N1 swine flu pandemic more than a decade ago.

In a meeting, Farley says Johnson's team told him Philly Fighting COVID proposed running a vaccine site at one of the stadiums in South Philadelphia. Farley said Johnson's team rejected the offer and "said that the plan was a bit of an overreach, and they did not approve it."

According to Farley, around Jan. 1, Johnson and her staff team came to him seeking approval for a new plan with Philly Fighting COVID: vaccinating home health care workers at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

"The team believed that PFC could do so, but they said they would be meeting with PFC a few days later to ensure that the organization had a sound operational plan," Farley said. "That was my last conversation with them about the choice of PFC to manage these clinics, until questions started being raised by the press later in January."

What paperwork exists?

Philly Fighting COVID did not have a city contract to administer the vaccine. Engler said he wasn't aware of paperwork beyond a CDC provider agreement existing in other cities administering the vaccine.

"Legally it is a contract between the provider and the CDC," Farley said. "However, we are the ones that provide that blank form to the providers. They provide that information to us, we then go and interview them, verify the information they provide to us, and if they meet that, then they are approved to receive vaccines."

The information includes proof of medical licenses, storage and safe management of the doses, and electronic data reporting capability.

"We have a key role in this, but the legal agreement is with the CDC."

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