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January 31, 2021

Acting deputy health commissioner steps down amid Philly Fighting COVID controversy

Dr. Caroline Johnson had given 'an unfair advantage' to two applicants seeking to become a partner in the city's effort to distribute coronavirus vaccine doses

Government Resignations
philly deputy health commissioner Kate Frese/For PhillyVoice

The Philadelphia Department of Public Health had requested for proposals from organizations interested in helping distribute COVID-19 vaccine doses across the city.

Dr. Caroline Johnson, Philadelphia's acting deputy health commissioner, resigned on Saturday from her position after she was found to have given "an unfair advantage" to two vendors hoping to become a partner in the city's initiative to distribute COVID-19 vaccine doses. 

Johnson, who was appointed to her position in July 2015, improperly consulted with Philly Fighting COVID and the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium about their respective applications for the city's coronavirus vaccination program, according to the Inquirer.

Johnson advised Andrei Doroshin — the embattled 22-year-old head of Philly Fighting COVID — on how much his organization should bid to be selected as an official partner of the city's coronavirus vaccine distribution plan, according to emails obtained by the Inquirer.

Philly Fighting COVID was advised by Johnson to propose a budget of at least $500,000 at the onset. The organization submitted an $8.5 million budget over six months in its COVID-19 vaccine clinic proposal to the city, according to NBC10.

The proposal requests were made public, but city officials are prohibited from privately soliciting or encouraging individuals or organizations to apply.

“These communications were made after the RFP was publicly posted. However, these actions were inappropriate because the information shared was not available to all potential applicants,” Philadelphia Department of Public Health spokesperson James Garrow said in a statement. 

“While these actions may have been intended to help advance the City’s vaccine distribution effort, the Health Commissioner has accepted her resignation in the best interest of the city," he continued.

The incident has been referred by the health department to the city's inspector general.

"Providing a dollar amount to some but not all applicants would present an unfair advantage to those applicants and violate our best practices,” Garrow said.

Philly Fighting COVID and the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium are two of nine organizations that have applied to run coronavirus vaccination clinics across the city. Penn Medicine, Temple Health and Einstein Healthcare Network are among those who have applied to be distributors, according to WHYY. If chosen, these vendors would help distribute COVID-19 vaccine doses provided by the city.

Before her tenure as acting deputy health commissioner, Johnson was the city's disease control division director for over a decade. She's also worked for both the Medical College of Pennsylvania and Philadelphia VA Medical Center as an infectious disease physician and researcher.

Johnson's resignation is the latest development this week in the turmoil surrounding the city's health department and Philly Fighting COVID.

The city's health department partnered with Philly Fighting COVID to open a massive coronavirus vaccination site at the Pennsylvania Convention Center earlier this month. Nearly 7,000 people were inoculated there before the city abruptly cut ties with the organization this past Monday. 

City health officials said they severed the partnership because Philly Fighting COVID had switched from nonprofit to for-profit status without informing them. The organization also had updated its privacy policy to allow it to sell information collected through its vaccine pre-registration website.

Doroshin, the graduate student and entrepreneur tasked with running Philly Fighting COVID, called upon the city on Friday to remove Dr. Tom Farley as health commissioner and to replace him with Johnson. 

Mayor Jim Kenney, however, has backed Farley amid the controversy. Kenney has asked the city's health department to produce a report within 30 days on how it came to partner with Philly Fighting COVID in its coronavirus vaccine distribution plan.

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