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Philadelphia Department of Public Health Terminates Vaccine Distribution Contract Over Alleged Privacy Violations

Philly Fighting COVID, a company tasked with distributing COVID-19 vaccinations to the city of Philadelphia, has had its contract with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health terminated after allegations were made that the company’s privacy policies may have allowed the sale of individuals’ data to third parties.

Philly Fighting COVID started out as a nonprofit that was initially focused on coronavirus testing before pivoting to administering COVID-19 vaccinations. The startup won the contract to run Philadelphia’s first community vaccine clinic, which was launched by the Department for Public Health on January 8, 2021.

Philly Fighting COVID created a website where Philadelphians were encouraged to pre-register for the vaccines and were required to provide information such as names, contact information, date of birth, zip code, and other data, with the data intended to be provided to the Health Department and used to improve vaccination efforts, such as identifying the best locations to open further vaccine clinics. More than 60,000 individuals used the website and pre-registered for shots.

After running COVID-19 testing facilities, Philly Fighting COVID switched its focus to vaccine provision. The vaccine clinic started providing vaccines and more than 6,800 people received their first dose at the site, over a third of whom were healthcare workers.

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In December 2020, Philly Fighting COVID created a for-profit arm was created and following that change in corporate status, a privacy policy was uploaded to the website, the wording for which indicated data collected through the website could be sold to third parties.

Philly Fighting COVID also abruptly stopped administering vaccines and had turned away seniors who had arrived for appointments and had waited in line for hours. Philly Fighting COVID claimed this was due to an error on the website that allowed too many individuals to book appointments.

Philly Fighting COVID was awarded the vaccine distribution contract as a nonprofit. The Department of Public Health and said it was not notified about any change in privacy policies that could potentially have allowed individuals’ data to be sold.

“For PFC to have made these changes without discussion with the City is extremely troubling,” said a Department of Public Health spokesperson. “As a result of these concerns, along with PFC’s unexpected stoppage of testing operations, the Health Department has decided to stop providing vaccines to PFC.”

Concerns were also raised about how Philly Fighting COVID was running the vaccine operation, with several troubling allegations made against the company. Notably, one nurse who had volunteered to work at the clinic and assist with providing vaccinations alleged on Twitter that she was not asked to provide any medical credentials when she applied for the position and claimed that the CEO had taken some of the vaccines home.

Responding to some of the criticism, Andrei Doroshin, CEO of Philly Fighting COVID explained on the website that “There was language in our privacy policy that was problematic and as soon as we became aware of it, we removed it. I apologize for the mistake in our privacy policy. We never have and never would sell, share, or disseminate any data we collected as it would be in violation of HIPAA rules.”

On NBC’s Today show, Doroshin admitted taking some of the vaccine doses and administering them to friends. “I understand that I made that mistake. That is my mistake to carry for the rest of my life, but it is not the mistake of the organization,” he said. The four doses he claims to have administered to friends were allegedly leftover doses that would otherwise have gone to waste, and that efforts were made to find eligible high-risk individuals to receive the doses but those attempts failed.

The Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner has launched an investigation into Philly Fighting COVID over the misrepresentation of its for-profit status and the alleged mishandling of COVID-19 vaccines. The Philadelphia Department of Public Health is planning on reopening the clinic once a new service provider is found.

Author: Steve Alder is the editor-in-chief of HIPAA Journal. Steve is responsible for editorial policy regarding the topics covered on HIPAA Journal. He is a specialist on healthcare industry legal and regulatory affairs, and has several years of experience writing about HIPAA and other related legal topics. Steve has developed a deep understanding of regulatory issues surrounding the use of information technology in the healthcare industry and has written hundreds of articles on HIPAA-related topics.