By Michael D’Onofrio
PHILADELPHIA — Mayor Jim Kenney is backing his top health official in the wake of a bungled city partnership with Philly Fighting COVID, the self-described “group of college kids” with no medical experience that was among the leading vaccine distributors until this past week.
Kenney said he was “disappointed” over the city’s relationship with Philly Fighting COVID in a letter to Health Commissioner Thomas Farley on Friday, which the mayor issued in a news release.
“I know you share my concerns on how these events can cast a shadow on what is the most important project facing our city — vaccination,” Kenney wrote.
But the mayor credited Farley’s “steady leadership” of the department during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Your guidance — grounded in science and data — is why Philly has the lowest per capita rate of new cases in the region,” Kenney wrote.
Philly Fighting COVID, a year-old start-up, had no history of running health care services before the Kenney administration tapped the group to become one of its major virus-testing partners and vaccine distributors. The group opened a vaccination clinic at the Pennsylvania Convention Center earlier this month and had been given 6% of the city’s vaccines.
The group scored a $190,000 city grant to run testing sites throughout the city, according to Philadelphia magazine. The group did not get paid for running the city’s vaccination clinic.
Andrei Doroshin, a 22-year-old Drexel University graduate, is the group’s CEO. Doroshin admitted last week to taking several vaccine doses from a vaccine.
In the letter, Kenney called on Farley to investigate how the Health Department came to partner with Philly Fighting COVID for both testing and vaccine distribution, as well as to identify weaknesses in the vetting process and provide recommendations for improvements.
Farley has 30 days to provide the report.
The Health Department will provide any findings of waste, fraud or corruption by Philly Fighting COVID to the Office of the Inspector General.
Kenney also directed Farley to set up clinics to ensure everyone who received a first vaccine dose from Philly Fighting COVID gets a second dose. Kenney noted the Health Department’s experience in the distribution of other vaccines, like flu and Hepatitis A.
The mayor pledged to tour the first clinic when it is up and running.
“You and your team have my confidence, and most importantly, the full force of the City government at your disposal to complete this latest, and vital mission,” Kenney wrote.
Commerce Director Michael Rashid, an African-American, will participate in any future committees tasked with reviewing proposals to provide COVID-19 testing or vaccination services for the city, Kenney said.
Farley is the second high-ranking administration official to face questions about his tenure. Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said Thursday she would not resign following a report from the City Controller’s Office over her handling of the protests for racial equity and against police violence last year.
While Farley received a letter securing Kenney’s support, Outlaw received a tweet of confidence from Kenney as she fielded questions during a press conference that the mayor did not attend.
Members of City Council unloaded on the Kenney administration last week over the bungled partnership with Philly Fighting COVID, saying the relationship reeked of white privilege and racism.
Last year Kenney came under fire for dragging his feet on partnering with the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, a group led by certified health professionals, on virus testing. The Black Doctors group eventually got a city contract to provide testing and administer vaccines but only after pressure from city legislators and community members.
Dr. Ala Stanford, a pediatric surgeon who heads the Black Doctors group, said the fallout from the city’s soured relationship with Philly Fighting COVID has not affected the trust among African Americans seeking vaccines at her clinics.
Stanford said the city’s selection of Philly Fighting COVID was yet another example of the differences between how the city officials — and officials across the country — treat white-owned groups compared with Black-owned groups.
“We live in two different worlds. There are different sets of rules,” Stanford said, adding: “The Kenney administration certainly scrutinized me more than PFC, undoubtedly.”
Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.