Beware Of Fake Pop-Up COVID Sites

7:25 minutes

A COVID-19 test.
COVID-19 test. Credit: Shutterstock

This story is a collaboration between Science Friday and KHN. Read and listen to the story by KHN contributing reporter Michelle Andrews.

In recent months, mobile COVID-19 testing tents and vans have sprouted on urban sidewalks and street curbs as demand has skyrocketed in response to the rapid spread of the omicron variant.

Some of the sites run by private companies offer legitimate, timely and reliable results, but others are more like weeds.

High demand and scarce supply opened the door to bad actors, and officials in some states are having a hard time keeping up their oversight amid the proliferation. And they are sounding the alarm that by visiting the pop-up industry’s sometimes makeshift tents, desperate patients could be putting their health, wallets and personal data at risk.

“These conditions change so rapidly,” said Gigi Gronvall, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security who leads the COVID-19 Testing Toolkit, which provides guidance to employers and others. “It’s not a surprise that these conditions were totally ripe for consumers to be gouged and to get fraudulent tests.”

Consumers seeking testing — either a rapid antigen test that provides results in under an hour or a polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, test that generally takes longer but is more accurate — may think all testing sites are created equal, but they’re not. Unfortunately, telling the good from the bad is not always easy.

Consumers at testing sites in the Chicago area have encountered employees who aren’t wearing masks or gloves or have been asked to provide a Social Security or credit card number before a test is provided, said Dr. Eve Bloomgarden, who co-founded Illinois Medical Professionals Action Collaborative Team, an advocacy group.

Fake testing sites put consumers at risk for identity theft, inaccurate or missing test results, and financial losses if they’re charged for the tests, which are typically free to consumers.

“I don’t think we can put this on the public to know” which sites are legitimate, Bloomgarden said. “Guidance needs to be coming from the state and regulated at the public health level.”

Melaney Arnold, a spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Public Health, said state officials “are aware of complaints for various testing locations across the state” and are investigating. She said consumers should contact Attorney General Kwame Raoul’s office if they are concerned about fraud or criminal activity at testing sites.

In Philadelphia, workers at a sidewalk covid testing tent falsely claimed to be working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said James Garrow, communications director for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, in an emailed response to questions. But FEMA told the department it wasn’t funding any testing centers in the city at the time.

“Currently, there are no quick markers to help folks know if a site is legitimate or not,” Garrow said. “That’s why we’re investigating if it is possible to provide a placard to demonstrate that a site is legitimate.”

It’s hard to walk down a street in some parts of Manhattan without running into at least one or two of the pop-up sites. Leading up to the holidays, people stood in long lines in the cold waiting to be swabbed. Some vans and tents are clearly marked with company names, while others are operating out of what appear to be rental vans.

The sites were also ubiquitous in Los Angeles. In some places, testing sites run by the same company were clustered within easy walking distance of one another. In the pre-holiday rush, the operator at a Crestview Clinical Laboratory site on Wilshire Boulevard, who wouldn’t give her name to a reporter, said she also provided a VIP service from another testing company for people willing to pay extra for rapid PCR tests.

Public health experts say they hope that concerns about a mobile test site’s legitimacy won’t deter people from getting tested.

Testing outdoors has advantages, too.

“If I had the choice between two options while there was a surge happening, one being completely outdoors and one indoors, I would choose the outdoor testing site,” said Denis Nash, a professor of epidemiology at the City University of New York. “And I would choose affordable home testing over both of those.”

In general, more testing is better than less.

“I tend not to care why people are testing,” Nash said. “If they are doing it to be safer at a party, great. But I do care if access is inequitable.”

Some testing operators are more prominent in neighborhoods where large shares of residents likely have health insurance rather than those where people are more likely to be without. For example, a map of testing locations for LabQ, a company that offers mobile covid testing in the New York City area, shows dozens of spots in Manhattan but only a handful in the Bronx.

One weak spot in the system is that although city and state health departments keep close regulatory tabs on the labs that process covid tests, they typically don’t regulate the site operators that administer the tests.

In Philadelphia, Garrow said, the only licensing requirement for covid testing sites is that the lab they use have a license from the state health department showing that it meets federal standards under the law known as Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments. CLIA sets lab testing standards for accuracy, reliability and timeliness.

In Maryland, covid testing sites must have a CLIA “waiver” from the federal government allowing them to perform the tests, said Andy Owen, deputy media relations director for the Maryland Department of Health.

In general, labs in the U.S. must have CLIA licenses, and requiring waivers for point-of-care testing is also standard.

In December 2020, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh issued a news release warning consumers about unauthorized covid testing operations that could collect people’s personal identifying information and use it to steal their identity.

Since then, the department hasn’t received any complaints about pop-up testing sites, according to Aleithea Warmack, deputy director of communications in the consumer protection division of the attorney general’s office.

In general, a test site operator seeking payment from a health plan for administering a covid test must have a national provider identifier, which comes from the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, said Kristine Grow, a spokesperson for AHIP, a trade group for health plans.

Although test operators routinely ask consumers for health insurance information, asking for credit card numbers is not routine. Individual consumers typically don’t have to pay out-of-pocket for a covid test because it is covered by insurance or by the federal government for people who are uninsured. However, some people are charged if the test isn’t ordered by their doctor, is a rush service or is performed by an out-of-network provider, where “we do continue to see price gouging through the course of the public health emergency,” Grow said.

One way to identify a legitimate testing operator is to check lists maintained by states and cities of the testing operators they work with or fund. But many legitimate testing operators are not in the official databases, Bloomgarden said.

Some independent test site operators are “highly qualified,” said Scott Becker, CEO of the Association of Public Health Laboratories. Becker went to a drive-through testing site in his neighborhood in Montgomery County, Maryland. The test operator told him which lab they used, and he received results with the name of the lab on them.

“They’re not all bad,” Becker said. “It’s just hard for Joe Consumer to figure it out.”

As demand for covid testing grows, even legitimate test operators may not meet their commitments.

Theo Servedio stood in line with a handful of other people at the sliding door of a LabQ mobile testing van near Columbia University in New York in December. The 19-year-old sophomore planned to attend a fraternity party, but with the uptick in covid cases, he wanted to get tested first. A sign at the registration table promised a 24-hour turnaround on its PCR tests.

“They’re both free, but turnaround for testing at the school has been 48 to 72 hours in the past,” Servedio said.

He got his results in 24 hours. But others weren’t so lucky. According to a warning letter sent to LabQ in December by New York Attorney General Letitia James, some consumers had waited more than 96 hours for their covid test results despite the company’s promise of a 48-hour turnaround. LabQ was one of several covid test companies that received the warnings in late December and early January.

LabQ didn’t respond to a request for comment.

KHN’s Chaseedaw Giles contributed to this report.

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Segment Guests

Michelle Andrews

Michelle Andrews is a contributing writer at Kaiser Health News. She’s based in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

MILES O’BRIEN: This is Science Friday. I’m Miles O’Brien filling in for Ira Flatow this week. If you live in a city, you’ve probably noticed COVID testing sites springing up all over the place, on sidewalks, in parking lots, that telltale pop-up tent or van with a big sign promising free COVID testing. But if you’re like me, some of these pop-up testing sites seem a little sketchy, even suspicious.

Across the country, local governments are trying to crack down on bad actors but if you’re just trying to find a test, it’s pretty hard to figure out if a testing site is fake. To help us understand what’s going on in the world of pop-up COVID testing, we turn to Michelle Andrews, contributing writer for Kaiser Health News. Michelle, Welcome to Science Friday. Thanks for being here.

MICHELLE ANDREWS: Thanks for having me, Miles.

MILES O’BRIEN: So why are we seeing so many of these questionable COVID test sites popping up?

MICHELLE ANDREWS: Well, I think that entrepreneurs are rushing in where there is a demand. There’s so many sick people who want testing and not enough tests available through the official city and state offerings. And so these smart business operators are running in and setting up tents and offering tests.

MILES O’BRIEN: So Michelle, how can we know, what are the signs that we’re getting into trouble with a pop-up COVID testing site that is not on the up and up?

MICHELLE ANDREWS: If you see a testing van that is a rental van for example, like the U-Haul that I saw on my street the other day. That’s a big red flag. And if it doesn’t seem clean or safe, if the people who are running it aren’t wearing masks or they’re pulling tests off the ground out of bags, that’s a red flag.

You want to look for a clear identifier of where this tester, testing operation is from, a company name. And I think that you can ask the people themselves what lab they’re working with, and possibly call that lab yourself. As far as what they might ask for from you, if they’re asking for your Social Security number don’t give it, that’s a clear red flag. But don’t hesitate to give insurance information, that’s perfectly legitimate.

MILES O’BRIEN: It seems like common sense. So follow your gut in this situation I think?

MICHELLE ANDREWS: I think you’re right.

MILES O’BRIEN: So what you’re finding then as part of your reporting is that this is an opportunity to steal someone’s identity?

MICHELLE ANDREWS: That is one of the concerns for sure. Because they’re getting your DNA, they’ve got that, right, if you’re giving them a swab, and if they ask for your Social Security number and a credit card number, I mean, they’re in pretty good shape to take a lot more from you than you want.

MILES O’BRIEN: Yeah, and we thought we thought we lost our privacy in social media. That’s a lot of information in one place.

MICHELLE ANDREWS: Exactly. I think that it’s important to also emphasize though, that some of these places may not be fake but they may just be not very efficient. Some of the things I’m reading about are places that are just so kind of not very familiar with medicine and how that works, they’re getting overwhelmed because they’re getting so many people and they’re just not keeping up. And so your tests are sitting in a bag for three days. And they’re no longer any good. So both are problems.

MILES O’BRIEN: Tell me about regulation of these pop-up sites. I imagine there aren’t many laws in the books that contemplate a COVID pop-up testing site. So is this a loophole that these entrepreneurs, I’m putting that in quotes, in some cases, are exploiting?

MICHELLE ANDREWS: It seems to be the case, yes. Our health departments are very on the ball and careful to monitor the labs in our states. The labs where they process the tests that we send into them but these pop-ups are so new that there’s not a lot of regulation around them. And so when I talked with health departments in New York and in Philadelphia and Chicago, they say gosh, we really don’t regulate them at this time. And that is a big loophole for sure because it just opens the door for them to do whatever they want.

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, and it’s difficult to put laws on the books quickly enough to respond to something like this even as the pandemic rocks on. So are there any ways that something can be done about this? In other words, if you call and complain, certainly, if you feel like your identity has been stolen one way or another, laws potentially have been broken, right?

MICHELLE ANDREWS: Potentially for sure. And what these states and cities are urging is for people who worry about potential fraud to get in touch with their state attorney general’s office because they all have forms that you can fill out to file a complaint basically.

MILES O’BRIEN: So is there much evidence that these operations are in the cross-hairs of authorities one way or another. In other words, is anybody cracking down?

MICHELLE ANDREWS: Well, as far as we can tell, I think that some of these states are launching investigations. How far along they are in them or what they’re uncovering is unclear because it’s all over the country. There’s not a central place to go to find this stuff out.

MILES O’BRIEN: I imagine if there were a bunch of regulations on the books, it would still be an enforcement nightmare if people are operating out of U-Hauls, right?

MICHELLE ANDREWS: Yes. And there are hundreds and hundreds of these places. As a consumer, you can go to the websites of the state health department and you can check that and find out whether they’re listed on the website as an authorized test operator but if they’re not, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad because again, this is all just emerging, and not everything is up-to-date.

MILES O’BRIEN: Michelle, are there places where they’re doing a better job at trying to crack down on fraudulent pop-up testing sites?

MICHELLE ANDREWS: The place that comes to mind is Philadelphia, where the health department was looking into trying to put together some sort of official state or city placard that these testing sites could affix to their fronts. So that you could, as a consumer look at it and say ah, that one’s got the official stamp of approval from the government.

MILES O’BRIEN: I think an important point for everybody listening is not to take this as a message not to get tested, right?

MICHELLE ANDREWS: Correct. Testing is important. And you might have to try and do a– take a couple of extra steps to feel confident that the test you’re getting is accurate and real but testing is important. And presumably or supposedly, we’re all going to get more tests available, at-home tests available soon, right? So that would help reduce the demand for these little street-side operations.

MILES O’BRIEN: Yes. I ordered a bunch. So I’ve got a good stock on hand. So if you need one let me know.


MILES O’BRIEN: That’s all the time we have. I want to thank you for joining us.


MILES O’BRIEN: Michelle Andrews is contributing writer for Kaiser Health News. You can read Michelle’s full story at sciencefriday.com.

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