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Philadelphia let 'college kids' distribute vaccines. Volunteers say it was a 'disaster'

Dozens of senior citizens were reportedly left in tears after lining up for hours to be vaccinated only to be informed that their appointments wouldn't be honored.

Cover Image Source: Getty Images/ A medical tray full of syringes containing the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine is seen on a table at the Louisville Urban League on January 20, 2021, in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Jon Cherry)

Despite being home to some of the most venerated medical institutions in the country, when it came time to distribute the long-awaited COVID-19 vaccine to its citizens, Philadelphia placed its faith in a self-described "group of college kids" with minimal health-care experience. Philly Fighting COVID — which received glowing coverage on national television just weeks ago — is now facing severe criticism and possibly an investigation after reports of senior citizens being turned away from their appointments, allegations that the start-up's 22-year-old CEO pocketed some vaccine doses, and the sudden addition of a privacy policy that would allow it to sell users' personal data.

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According to The Washington Post, the group gained national attention when CEO Andrei Doroshin — a graduate student at Drexel University — rallied together some of his friends to help orchestrate an effort to use 3-D printers to make free face shields for hospital workers at the start of the pandemic. By summer, the group was running their own pop-up testing sites citywide. While their popularity eventually brought about a partnership with the city for vaccine distribution, the city has now cut ties with Philly Fighting COVID and prosecutors are looking into the "concerning" allegations.

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The move comes after the group allegedly switched to a for-profit model without alerting anyone about the change and quietly added a privacy policy that would let it sell users' personal data. Dozens of senior citizens were reportedly left in tears after lining up for hours to be vaccinated at the Pennsylvania Convention Center earlier this month when they were informed that the appointments they'd made through a bungled sign-up form wouldn't be honored. Apparently, this was because Philly Fighting COVID had accidentally allowed too many people to sign up. "There were literally 85-year-old, 90-year-old people standing there in tears, with printed appointment confirmations, saying, 'I don't understand why I can't get vaccinated, I'm 85,'" a witness revealed.

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While one former volunteer alleged that Doroshin pocketed some vaccine doses for himself, another described a "free-for-all" where unsupervised 18- and 19-year-olds vaccinated each other and posed for photos. The group's young, entrepreneurial leaders also openly talked about the potential for profit, a former volunteer told WHYY. "They were bragging about how rich they were going to get," the volunteer said. Meanwhile, another claimed that the group's executives "said they were gonna be millionaires" by billing insurance providers for administering vaccine doses that Philly Fighting COVID got free.

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Katrina Lipinsky, a registered nurse who volunteered with the group, called the vaccine distribution effort a "disaster of an operation." She claimed that she wasn't asked for her medical credentials before she began administering vaccines and that plenty of unused doses were left over after senior citizens were turned away. She also alleged that she saw Doroshin place between 10 and 15 of those doses in his bag and take them with him when he left. Lipinsky's claim is backed by a photo that circulated on Snapchat that appeared to show the 22-year-old CEO "getting ready to administer an unspecified syringe" to an individual in a private home during a small gathering with friends that night.

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Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said at a Tuesday briefing that the allegations against the group were "very disturbing" if true and that any leftover vaccine doses should have been returned to the city. He added that "in retrospect," it was a mistake to partner with the group. Farley said the city's decision to sever ties with Philly Fighting COVID was made after health officials became aware that the group had switched to for-profit status. Doroshin offered a partial apology on the group's behalf on Tuesday while defending the switch to for-profit status and denying claims that he had helped himself to leftover vaccine doses.

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He also apologized for "any miscommunications" caused by Philly Fighting COVID switching its focus from testing to vaccines and said that he never intended to "cause confusion or harm" and that the group lacked the resources to handle both testing and vaccinations at the same time. Becoming a for-profit company, he said, was necessary for "scaling up." However, the group will still have to answer to a number of elected officials who are now calling for an investigation. On Tuesday, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner (D) asked anyone with knowledge of potential criminal activity to contact his office while Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D) invited Philadelphians who felt they had been misled by Philly Fighting COVID to open a complaint.

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According to Philadelphia magazine, the fact that everyone on Philly Fighting COVID’s executive team is White has raised eyebrows since Philadelphia has a substantial Black population. Although Philadelphia is roughly 44 percent Black, only 12 percent of vaccines have gone to Black people so far. The city is also home to the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, which pioneered one of the earliest efforts to conduct COVID-19 testing in communities disproportionately affected by the virus. "If there was anybody poised and ready to do this, it was us," said founder Ala Stanford, adding that the city had suggested she team up with Philly Fighting COVID to administer vaccines. "I happen to have been a doctor for 23 years, longer than some of these kids have been living, but I need these White kids to teach me how to do it?"

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