coronavirus vaccine

The Fyre Festival of Vaccine Rollouts

The mass vaccination center set up by Philly Fighting COVID at the Pennsylvania Convention Center on January 15, 2021. Illustration: Rachel Wisniewski/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been scams to separate Americans from their stimulus checks, fraudulent operations to sell useless personal protective equipment, and fake COVID-19 testing sites and labs set up to siphon off government funding. Now, the city of Philadelphia has exposed the nation — and some of its most vulnerable elderly residents — to the first alleged vaccine grift of the coronavirus era.

As other young men throughout the country swindle hedge funds by investing in video-game retail, WHYY and Philadelphia Magazine report that a self-described “group of college kids” under the name of Philly Fighting COVID gained access to thousands of vaccine doses and boasted about the money they were going to make. After turning away dozens of seniors this weekend because they botched the sign-up process, the group reportedly took doses home with them.

The project began with Andrei Doroshin, a 22-year-old Drexel student and serial entrepreneur whose organization found apparent success running pop-up testing sites around Philadelphia this summer — and giving out 7,000 shots in early January, representing 8 percent of the city’s first tranche of doses. “We took the entire model and just threw it out the window,” Doroshin told the Today show earlier this month. “We think a little differently than people in health care do.”

But when PFC set up a vaccination site for seniors last weekend, WHYY reports that the event resulted in a disaster:

Some had waited hours by the time Philly Fighting COVID, the start-up administering vaccines on behalf of the city, began turning people away. The 9-month-old group had bungled a sign-up page that allowed dozens of people to make appointments online. On arrival, many learned the clinic was overbooked.

“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,’” said Jillian Horn, a Callowhill resident who tried to get inoculated this weekend.

A witness alleges that come nightfall, there were still vaccines left over — despite PFC workers having turned people away.

The reported failure was the most high-profile of several questionable decisions made by PFC with city-provided funding. The group reportedly collected data from thousands of Philadelphians signing up for vaccines without informing them that they changed their privacy policy to reserve the right to sell personal data to a third party. (Doroshin later called the language on the site about selling private information “a mistake.”) In a city which has struggled to provide minority residents with pandemic care, PFC — whose leaders are all white — closed testing centers in Black and Latino neighborhoods when beginning the vaccination process and “completely ghosted” community leaders, according to one pastor. It may have been a blessing in disguise: One PFC nurse said there was rarely anyone else with clinical experience on-site and that designated supervisors were sometimes absent or asleep. According to one volunteer, the group’s leaders also talked about how insurance payouts would ensure they were “just gonna make 30 bucks in profit” on every dose, which PFC received for free. The volunteer claims they also boasted about their pandemic success: “They said they were gonna be millionaires.”

After the city delivered Philly Fighting Covid thousands of vaccine vials, WHYY reports that 18- and 19-year-olds were posing for pictures as they gave each other vaccine shots. A registered nurse who volunteered with the group alleged that Doroshin took doses for a personal stash after turning away seniors last Saturday. That night, he was reportedly seen on social media preparing to administer a syringe in a private residence.

As of Monday, Philly Fighting COVID was removed from the city’s vaccination program.

Doroshin has disputed many of these allegations, but the prospect of a young serial entrepreneur with a propped-up résumé holding an event in which attendees don’t get what they signed up for brings to mind another notable failure in the history of American events: Fyre Festival. Unlike Billy McFarland’s disastrous weekend in the sun, the victims here are not youthful targets of Schadenfreude, but elderly people in a pandemic in which Americans over 75 account for almost half of all COVID deaths.

Also unlike the privately funded 2017 concert in the Bahamas, the backers of Philly Fighting COVID bear much more responsibility for their unsound investment. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that at a November City Council meeting about vaccine distribution in which Doroshin spoke, no one asked him about the public-health bona fides of his organization. (None of the group’s “executive team” members hold a medical degree or graduate degree in public health.)

Several council members are now calling for an investigation into why the city entrusted a 22-year-old with thousands of vaccine doses, and Philadelphia district attorney Larry Krasner has asked residents with any knowledge of potential criminal activity to come forward. And while Philadelphia health commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley said there were no warning signs of the impending mess — and that there were no other choices for a mass vaccination partner — WHYY reported that Penn Medicine offered “to ramp up community vaccination efforts as far back as November,” before the city began its non-contractual agreement with Doroshin’s firm.

The city of Philadelphia choosing to vaccinate residents under the guidance of a disruption-minded college student rather than an Ivy-league medical school is a scandal in its own right. But across the United States over the last two months, the vaccination effort has been hampered by total federal incompetence, as hospitals report shortages of vaccines and states await the ramp-up promised by the Biden administration. Ten months into the pandemic, navigating a public-health system that was gutted decades ago, a major American city was duped by a young man whose résumé points include making videos of his friends doing parkour. We still have no idea what we are doing.

The Fyre Festival of Vaccine Rollouts