The Bizarre, Infuriating Story of Philly Fighting COVID’s Meteoric Rise and Swift Fall
A 20-something student with big ambitions and no medical experience thought he was the best person to lead Philly’s COVID vaccination efforts. The city agreed. What could possibly go wrong?
It was nearing 7 p.m. at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, and Philly Fighting COVID had a problem. The group, an ambitious and energetic start-up run by a 22-year-old Drexel psychology grad student named Andrei Doroshin, had been administering coronavirus vaccines to a steady stream of people all day, around 150 per hour, at the first mass vaccination site in Philadelphia. PFC liked to brag about its efficiency, and to speed up the vaccination process, it had pre-loaded syringes. Once doses are in syringes, though, they’re only good for six hours. Now the clinic was about to close, and there were at least 100 doses remaining.
The clinic, then in its third weekend, was supposed to be exclusively for home health-care workers, a difficult-to-reach population. But PFC’s private registration links had been shared widely, and many people, including elderly Philadelphians who were otherwise eligible to get vaccinated, kept showing up, thinking they had legitimate appointments. PFC struggled to respond with any consistency: For every elderly person sent home in tears — and there were many — there seemed to be another who managed to slip through and get vaccinated.
Around the time of the clinic’s 7 p.m. close, the crowd became decidedly younger. Katrina Lipinsky, a volunteer nurse who had responded to a PFC job posting on Instagram, watched as staffers cheerfully greeted the rush of new arrivals: “It was parents and friends and other ineligible family members,” she says. The mood was practically celebratory; people were enjoying the opportunity to vaccinate their loved ones. Lipinsky found the scene questionable, but she also remembered the health department’s main directive: No wasted doses.
What she witnessed next, however, was impossible to justify. Around 7:15, Lipinsky saw Doroshin, who has no health-care experience or training, walking away from the vaccine table with a handful of syringes — she thinks somewhere between 10 and 15 — in a clear plastic bag and a stack of CDC vaccination cards. A Snapchat would later circulate of Doroshin preparing to give a shot off-site. “I was shaking,” Lipinsky says. “I felt like what I saw happen wasn’t right.”
She took that as her cue to leave. A few minutes before 8 p.m., Lipinsky stood outside the Convention Center and texted a friend about what had happened. People were still coming in to be vaccinated. But by that point, Doroshin was long gone.
Two days later, the Department of Public Health announced that it would no longer be working with Philly Fighting COVID. Not because Doroshin had taken doses — that story wouldn’t come out until the next day — but because of its for-profit status, its data policy, and its canceled testing clinics. PFC, health commissioner Thomas Farley would later say, had become “untrustworthy.”
It was a remarkable collapse. Just two weeks before, Doroshin had stood proudly before the cameras at the Convention Center, his pet bulldog Winston on a leash by his side, as Mayor Jim Kenney and other city dignitaries commemorated the opening weekend of the vaccine clinic. PFC vaccinated 1,124 people that day; later, Doroshin popped champagne on the Convention Center floor. The national press had also marveled at the young, upstart CEO who claimed to have revolutionized mass vaccinations. Doroshin went on the Today show and offered to share his model with other cities nationwide.
By the time WHYY published its report that Doroshin took doses and gave them to friends, he had become a citywide pariah, and PFC a national embarrassment. Doroshin gave a series of dubious, evolving explanations. “This is baseless, I have no idea why they are saying this,” he texted me immediately after the story broke. Two days later, he went back on the Today show, this time admitting he had taken doses, though just four, he said, not the 10 to 15 Lipinsky alleged. (When I asked why he’d lied earlier, Doroshin told me that “‘baseless’ isn’t denial.”) Later still, Doroshin offered me a fuller accounting of the events: “We were there until nine o’clock. We got fucking 96 people done. I had four left over, and you know the story: I took them home.” When confronted with texts from Lipinsky that said he was gone by 8 p.m. and with her assertion that plenty of people were still getting vaccinated when he left, Doroshin said, “By ‘we,’ I mean ‘the team.’”
For all of the attention on Doroshin, this was the health department’s embarrassment, too. What seemed to make the PFC story so compelling — the fact that Doroshin’s unproven band of college buddies had waltzed from obscurity into securing a city contract for COVID testing, and later into administering vaccines — was actually what made it so damning. This was eds-and-meds Philadelphia, yet who was tasked with running the first mass vaccination clinic in the city? Not Penn, not Temple, not the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium or any other established organization, but PFC.
Even as Farley cut ties, he did little to answer that more fundamental question: how the City of Philadelphia, faced with an unprecedented vaccination campaign, chose a 22-year-old with no experience to do the job.
For the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, the pandemic unfolded in phases. Like the rest of the world, Farley knew little about the coronavirus in its early days. “The only tool we had,” he says, “was social distancing.” With the federal government effectively AWOL, it was up to the health department to craft guidelines and inform the public. The city did have an influenza pandemic playbook, but it mostly amounted to a list of strategies for distributing Tamiflu — little use in a pandemic caused by a completely novel disease. Preparing for a worst-case scenario, the city built a temporary 200-bed hospital at Temple’s Liacouras Center.
Meanwhile, everyone else was stuck at home, reading horror stories about nurses forced to wear trash bags for protection. Doroshin, like many, was left in limbo by the shutdown. His neuroscience lab, where he worked as a graduate student, doing research on the impact of outer space on the human brain, was closed. His real estate venture, a side gig with his dad, had been about to secure an investor for its first project, a wellness retreat in Austin, but the pandemic dried up the money. It was, Doroshin says, “one of the most visceral moments of true depression I’ve ever had.” One day, while surfing on YouTube, he came across a video on how to make DIY face shields using 3-D printers. He’d been searching for purpose; now he had it.
Doroshin called a few engineering friends connected to Drexel who felt similarly untethered. One of them, a 27-year-old named Victor Shugart, who would eventually be in charge of overseeing PFC’s testing operations, had just been laid off from his job as a mechanical engineer. “It felt good to have a reason to leave the house,” he says.
With $4,000 he says came from a student loan, Doroshin bought some 3-D printers. Two weeks later, Philly Fighting COVID had made 200 face shields, and Doroshin was driving to area hospitals, making deliveries. Part of him wondered: If making PPE was this easy, why wasn’t everyone doing it?
By late spring, the pandemic had moved into its second phase. Hospitals in Philly had escaped the worst-case surge, the PPE shortage had begun to abate, and it was finally possible to administer COVID tests on a wide basis. Now the health department was scrambling to catch up to demand. “Everyone said they wanted testing all at once, and there was only so much supply,” Farley says.
Doroshin sensed an opening and called Quest Diagnostics, one of the largest testing labs in the country. “Basically, what Quest told me was that all of the headlines saying there weren’t enough test kits out there were bullshit,” Doroshin says. According to Quest, there were plenty of kits; the problem was there weren’t enough people to administer them. Doroshin had people, and he soon hatched a deal: Quest would ship the kits to PFC and bill patients’ insurance for the cost, and PFC would administer them to people in Philly — for free. Transforming PFC from a ramshackle group of 20-somethings making PPE in a warehouse into a legitimate medical operation was ambitious, not least because none of the staff had professional medical experience. But Doroshin convinced everyone he’d find people to do the medical stuff. “Everything outside of swabbing, entering the data, and talking to patients was just logistics,” Shugart says. “It felt like wartime — it doesn’t matter how specialized you are. This is the effort that needs to get done.”
The group spent hours cold-calling businesses with parking lots that could accommodate a drive-through clinic until the Fillmore donated use of its lot beneath the I-95 overpass in Fishtown. To staff the clinic, Doroshin tapped the undergrad pre-med fraternities at Drexel and Temple, recognizing that they’d never turn down the chance to gain pandemic volunteering experience they could later cite on med-school applications.
By Doroshin’s own admission, the first clinic was “fucking terrible.” He had to scrounge for a doctor willing to work for free and for a nurse who could oversee the operation. It was a hot June day, and Doroshin couldn’t afford high-grade PPE, so he had the volunteers wear ponchos. To prescribe a COVID test at the time, a clinician needed to ask patients questions about their health, and the increasingly sweaty PFC volunteers had neither software with which to input the data nor any idea of how detailed their handwritten notes should be. “We were writing like War and Peace on every single fucking thing,” Doroshin says. But at the end of the day, Quest came by to pick up the vials, and a few days later, Philly Fighting COVID received its first batch of results. They had tested 101 people on the first day.
Somehow, it had all worked.
Farley had set a goal of 5,000 daily COVID tests citywide, but by July, the health department was only halfway there. A new federal testing grant promised to help close the gap, but the city needed to recruit as many new providers as it could.
After the first testing clinic at the Fillmore, Shugart got a call from Colleen Tingey, a health department employee in charge of COVID testing. “My butthole shrank to the size of a pinhead,” he says. He was sure Tingey was calling to shut PFC down; it was time, he figured, for the pros to take over. Instead, Tingey said she’d heard about PFC from a neighborhood Facebook group and wanted to tell them how to apply for funding. Shugart was floored. “If they were asking us to send a proposal,” he says, “they were desperate.”
One person who didn’t seem surprised that the health department reached out was Doroshin. He put together a plan and budget for a twice-weekly testing site that would run 59 clinics and administer at least 7,000 tests over six months, with a paid staff of 11, including a nurse practitioner and four EMTs. Cost: $220,000. Doroshin gave himself the position of “data logger,” which would end up paying $630 per clinic, or nearly $40,000 over the life of the contract — the highest-paid role in the organization.
Though Doroshin didn’t like to show it, this was new terrain. He grew up in Los Angeles; his parents had made a fortune and then, post-2008 crash, had lost a fortune in real estate. Doroshin attributes his entrepreneurial spirit to them; by the time he hit his teenage years, he started accumulating a list of projects of his own — all of which would later end up on his official PFC résumé — that sounded impressive on paper but amounted to much less in reality: He worked as a “director of photography” at a film company called A.N.D. Productions (he’d later admit this was actually his dad’s business, where he’d help out “doing some videography work. I was, like, 14.”); he started the “Rancho Mirage Film Department,” an after-school film class at his high school; and he created a group focused on lowering air pollution that was about as impactful as its fund-raising attempt: $684 earned out of a $50,000 goal.
When he arrived as an undergrad at Drexel, Doroshin presented himself as a worldly type with experience in the film industry and nonprofits. He also developed an interest in neuroscience, and according to three former friends, he would occasionally try to “implant” memories in people — once accusing a partygoer of getting very drunk, jumping on a table, and screaming at another person when, in fact, no such thing had happened. It was a demonstration, he’d tell people who were in on the trick, of the malleability of memory.
At PFC, there was a feeling of incredulity among the staff when it came to Doroshin’s supposed accomplishments, but it was also difficult to ignore the fact that he got results. When PFC was putting together its testing proposal, Shugart thought it would get laughed out of the room. Doroshin insisted it was good enough and hit send without telling anyone. Sure enough, on July 20th, after a few tweaks to the budget, the city awarded PFC $194,000. “Moments like that, where we were convinced that it wouldn’t work but it did, earned Andrei a lot of faith,” Shugart says. “Maybe he had some understanding of how this shit works better than we do.”
In a subsequent investigation into the health department’s relationship with Philly Fighting COVID, the city’s inspector general, Alexander DeSantis, noted that the health department “conducted very little independent research on the applications” for testing sites and that the vetting mostly amounted to “simple Google searches.” In a bit of public health tautology, one of the city’s main criteria for funding was whether an organization had an existing testing site up and running. PFC checked that box.
But PFC didn’t operate like a group of seasoned professionals. Doroshin hired his 19-year-old brother, Sergei, who, according to four former employees, would flirt with patients and openly discuss which co-workers he thought were most attractive. The testing sites — still mostly staffed by college students — devolved into petty cliques. Debbie Flamholz, a 31-year-old nurse who worked at PFC for three months, once witnessed a PFC executive berate a volunteer, saying to him, “I really hate you, you have to leave. I never want to see you again.”
“It was like Mean Girls stuff,” Flamholz says. The staff seemed to be playacting, as if their behavior was informed more by representations of work on TV than by any actual real-world experience. “It was kids running a business,” acknowledges Tarek Yahya, a 20-year-old former employee. “But I want to emphasize, they were inappropriate, unprofessional, petty, there was this cliquey aspect, but that was all within the company. In my opinion, we were doing the best job possible for the city to get as many people tested as possible.”
“It was like Mean Girls stuff,” says one former employee of Philly Fighting COVID. “They were inappropriate, unprofessional, petty,” recalls another.
In reality, PFC’s problems extended beyond its internal workplace culture. In its testing contract with the city, the group had pledged to test underserved communities, but it was only collecting demographic data on 32 percent of its patients. Other testing groups, like the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, were well over 90 percent. Of the people for whom PFC did have data, more than two-thirds were white.
A health department “secret shopper” who went to scope out the site said that the location lacked clear signage and reported receiving a typo- and error-riddled text from the group as a follow-up a few hours later. Flamholz was also continually surprised by the shambolic state of affairs. There was no protection from the cold, and in winter, the temperature guns at the testing site broke down, making it impossible to record patients’ vital signs. It was windy under the I-95 overpass, and patient documents got caught in the draft. “We spent more time chasing down supplies blowing away than we did giving good patient interaction,” says Flamholz. PFC seemed to grow not because of any visionary leadership from Doroshin, but in spite of him.
Although Doroshin would often boast to the staff, according to Yahya, of how “we’re helping to end this pandemic, helping the city — and we’re making bank,” this was only half true. For PFC higher-ups, the money was good. But at the company level, both Doroshin and Shugart say, there was little cash in reserve. The city took weeks to pay out invoices — in part because PFC often made mistakes when submitting them. “The business was always paycheck to paycheck,” says Doroshin. (He claims he invested almost all of the money he made from the city contract back into the company. He also bought a Jeep and moved from his apartment near Drexel to a nicer place in Fishtown.)
In November, a boutique concierge medicine company called Ivee offered a solution: By failing to bill insurers at the testing sites, Ivee said, PFC was leaving tens of thousands of dollars on the table. Ivee proposed having doctors perform more detailed patient checkups, which would allow Ivee to bill insurance for “patient visits” running anywhere from $20 to $130 apiece. A deal was struck: Ivee would provide the doctors and handle the billing, and PFC would get a cut of $24 per test. “It seemed like they were a godsend,” Shugart says. “You can knife insurance companies all you want,” he recalls thinking, “just don’t charge the patients.”
The partnership lasted a week. The doctors hired by Ivee didn’t realize they’d been conscripted into assembly-line medicine. Their evaluations led to long lines, which incensed Doroshin. He wanted to fire the company on the spot, but Shugart begged him to wait until the end of the last scheduled clinic that week. To ditch Ivee sooner would have thrown the testing site into chaos.
Shortly after that conversation, Doroshin rode his motorcycle to the Fillmore parking lot and unleashed a tirade on the Ivee staff. He kicked them off the property and threatened to call the police. As the PFC staff scrambled to keep the testing site operating, Shugart got a call from the CEO of Ivee: “Hey, Victor,” the CEO said, “why did Andrei just tell me to go fuck myself?”
By September, the health department began to prepare for what it hoped would be the last frontier of the pandemic: vaccinations. The city would approach its vaccination effort as it did its testing, working with what Farley calls a “patchwork of different provider organizations.” “We had a lot of people to vaccinate in a hurry,” he says, “and the idea of working with and through partners is standard practice.”
Doroshin recognized another opportunity. He brought on his grad-school adviser, Karol Osipowicz, a neuroscience PhD, to become PFC’s chief science officer. (This wasn’t Osipowicz’s first collaboration with Doroshin; he was also an adviser in the latter’s real estate project.) Karol’s brother, Dominick, a nurse practitioner, became chief of medical operations and was tasked with ironing out the medical specifics for a vaccine clinic.
In one presentation to PFC staff, Doroshin outlined his vision of vaccinating between 500,000 and 1.5 million people at a series of mass clinics headquartered at the South Philly stadiums. His voice rising to a shout, Doroshin asked the question on everyone’s mind: “How are we getting paid?” He went on: “We’re going to be billing insurance companies: $24 per vaccine. I just told you how many vaccines we want to do — you can do the math in your head.” If PFC could win a city contract and get funded as it had for testing — the group eventually submitted an $8.5 million plan — the payout would be even sweeter: no expenses, all profit.
Doroshin began courting any City Hall bureaucrat who would hear him out. While his request for a meeting with Farley was turned down, he got acquainted with other officials leading the vaccination effort and began pitching them his grand vision. That led to a seat on the city’s new vaccine advisory committee, a group of 40 experts that included the chief medical officers of Penn and Independence Blue Cross.
“I felt like I needed to coach him,” Shugart says of Doroshin’s entrée into city politics. “I told him there’s a certain level of decorum and that being a brash 22-year-old isn’t going to win you any favor.” But Doroshin struggled to break his habit of interrupting experts decades his senior. In November, after testifying to City Council about his stadium vaccination plan, he loudly tried to interject as the chief medical officer of Penn Medicine was under questioning from Helen Gym. “Mr. Doroshin,” Councilmember Gym said dryly, “could you please hold to allow Dr. Brennan to finish?”
The behavior didn’t seem to poison his relationship with the health department, in part because the health department was in the midst of dysfunction of its own. The employees who knew about Doroshin’s spotty track record with testing had virtually no input on the vaccination effort, and the employees leading the vaccination campaign continued to buy what he was selling. On December 15th, the city posted the mandatory CDC paperwork for prospective clinic hosts; PFC turned its in days later, well ahead of other groups. On December 23rd, a health department official emailed Doroshin to offer him the chance to run a “pilot ‘mini-mass’ vaccination clinic for health-care personnel” on two weeks’ notice. “We are always suspicious, but we didn’t have much to lose,” Caroline Johnson, the deputy health commissioner leading the vaccine rollout, told the Washington Post. (Johnson would later resign from the department and didn’t respond to requests for comment. City officials refused to make any health department employees available for interviews about PFC and didn’t comply with public records requests about the organization.)
Doroshin rushed to put together his operation — signing a lease agreement with the Convention Center and securing what he claims was a $250,000 loan from a “family friend,” since the city didn’t have funds to support vaccination clinics yet. Meanwhile, other established health-care groups, like Ala Stanford’s Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, were still waiting for direction from the city. Stanford had served with Doroshin on the city’s vaccine advisory committee. She was eager to start providing vaccines for the high-risk communities where she had deep ties and had been doing outreach work, including testing, for months. But she didn’t learn about the CDC requirements until weeks after PFC had completed its paperwork. Both she and Doroshin received emails from Johnson on December 31st encouraging them to apply for forthcoming funding opportunities for vaccination clinics. What Stanford didn’t know was that she was still technically ineligible to receive vaccines. And unlike her, Doroshin wasn’t merely being asked to apply for funding for a hypothetical future clinic. His had already been approved, a full week earlier.
Just four days before the first clinic, PFC’s chief medical officer, the only doctor in the organization, resigned and directly informed a contact at the health department about concerns he had regarding Doroshin’s character, PFC’s for-profit status, and the company’s ability to pull off a vaccine clinic. (Doroshin says the doctor was actually fired after he caught him trying to poach some of PFC’s other staffers to form a group of his own. The doctor doesn’t deny doing this: “I essentially proposed an offshoot of who we were, minus him.”) Around the same time, Shugart, the person most likely to act as a check on Doroshin’s worst instincts, was overwhelmed with his workload running PFC’s testing clinics and decided to step down. (Shortly thereafter, Doroshin would make the decision to cancel PFC’s community testing clinics.)
In spite of the sudden turnover — what DeSantis, the inspector general, would later call a “serious red flag” — the city continued apace. On January 21st, just four days before PFC imploded, Doroshin asked Johnson to put her name to a letter meant to help PFC secure investors. The letter she signed a day later praised PFC for being “very successful in running high throughput vaccine operations” and suggested there was every reason to expect it to continue receiving vaccines in the future.
The explanation for how Philly Fighting COVID got fired is simpler than one might think: Farley, described by DeSantis in his report as “disconnected and uninformed,” had delegated the vaccine rollout almost entirely to Johnson; he himself was largely unfamiliar with the group. For that same reason, when he eventually learned about the for-profit change, the questionable data policy, and the last-minute testing cancellation, he was blindsided. He made the decision, over Johnson’s opposition, to stop giving PFC vaccines.
Soon after, the story about the stolen vaccines was published on WHYY’s website.
Doroshin’s mom flew in to console him, and with her counsel, he decided to go on the offensive. He gave a press conference in the lobby of his Fishtown apartment building, defending his actions and calling on Farley to resign. “Where’s Dr. Farley now?” Doroshin taunted as he nervously read a statement from his phone. “Is he at the Convention Center vaccinating thousands of people like he should be? Has he come out with a real plan? Or did a 22-year-old and his college friends have to do that for him?”
In his report, DeSantis concluded that the city never should have given PFC the opportunity to run a vaccine clinic. But he also found no indication that PFC ever tried to sell user data, and he says Doroshin did share the news of the for-profit shift with Johnson, who didn’t find it disqualifying, seeing as the health department routinely dealt with for-profits like pharmacies. The irony is that Doroshin’s most fireable offense — taking doses — is the one Farley knew nothing about.
Forced to the sidelines, expelled from Drexel, and facing inquiries by the attorney general, the district attorney, and the city inspector general, Doroshin doesn’t seem inclined to slink away. In a February email to former PFC staffers, he outlined his plans to sue the city for “pain and damages.” In the meantime, he’s watched as the health department stepped in to administer all of PFC’s second doses at a modified city-run version of the Convention Center clinic. “They’re literally taking over our setup,” Doroshin says. “That’s fucking crazy. We showed their people how to use software — we showed them everything. They came in there and took it from us.”
That’s one possible conclusion. Another is that PFC’s ability to administer doses en masse was never as impressive as Doroshin claimed. At its five separate clinics, PFC vaccinated an average of 1,350 people per day. In February, the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium held a 24-hour clinic and vaccinated nearly 4,000 people. And in March, the Federal Emergency Management Agency set up on PFC’s old turf at the Convention Center and began a mass vaccination clinic of its own. On its first day, FEMA gave 5,600 shots — more than 80 percent of what PFC gave out over its entire existence. Turns out everyone else could do the job, too. Only better.
Published as “Andrei Doroshin’s Big Idea” in the May 2021 issue of Philadelphia magazine.