Officials struggle to regulate pop-up COVID testing sites – and warn patients to beware | PA

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

Some of the privately run sites offer legit, timely, and reliable results, but others are more weed-like.

High demand and scarcity of supply have opened the door to bad actors, and officials in some states are struggling to maintain surveillance 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 are changing so rapidly,” said Gigi Gronvall, a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security who leads the COVID-19 Testing Toolkit, which provides guidance for employers and others. “It’s no surprise that these conditions are totally ripe for consumers to be ripped off and subjected to fraudulent tests.”

Consumers looking for a test – either a rapid antigen test that provides results in less than an hour, or a polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, a test that typically takes longer but is more accurate – may think that all test sites are created equal, but they are not. Unfortunately, distinguishing the good from the bad is not always easy.

Consumers at Chicago-area testing sites encountered employees who did not wear masks or gloves or were asked to provide a Social Security or credit card number before a test was provided, said Dr. Eve Bloomgarden, who co-founded Illinois Medical Professionals Action Collaborative Team, an advocacy group.

Fake test sites put consumers at risk of identity theft, inaccurate or missing test results, and financial loss if they are charged for the tests, which are usually free to consumers.

“I don’t think we can put this out to the public to find out ‘which sites are legit,’ Bloomgarden said. “Advice should come from the state and be regulated at the public health level.”

Melaney Arnold, spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Public Health, said state officials “are aware of complaints about 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 test sites.

In Philadelphia, workers at a sidewalk COVID-19 testing tent falsely claimed to be working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, James Garrow, director of communications for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, said in an e-mail response to questions. But FEMA told the department it was not funding any testing centers in the city at the time.

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

It’s hard to walk down a street in some parts of Manhattan without coming across at least one or two of the pop-up sites. Before the holidays, people lined up in the cold waiting to be dabbed. Some vans and tents are clearly branded with the company name, while others operate from what appear to be rental vans.

The sites were also ubiquitous in Los Angeles. In some places, test sites run by the same company were grouped together within walking distance of each other. In the holiday rush, the operator of a Crestview clinical laboratory site on Wilshire Boulevard, who would not give her name to a reporter, said she was also providing VIP service from another testing company for people willing to pay extra for rapid PCR. trials.

Public health experts say they hope concerns about the legitimacy of a mobile testing site won’t deter people from getting tested.

Testing outdoors also has advantages.

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

In general, more testing is better than less.

“I tend not to care what people are testing for,” Nash said. “If they’re doing it to be safer at a party, great. But I care whether access is inequitable.

Some test operators are more prominent in neighborhoods where a large portion of residents are likely to have health insurance rather than where people are more likely not to have it. For example, a map of testing locations for LabQ, a company that offers mobile COVID-19 testing in the New York area, shows dozens of spots in Manhattan but only a handful in the Bronx.

A weak point in the system is that while city and state health departments closely monitor the labs that process COVID-19 tests, they generally don’t regulate the site operators who administer the tests.

In Philadelphia, Garrow said, the only licensing requirement for COVID-19 testing sites is that the lab they use have a license from the state health department showing it meets federal standards under of the law known as the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments. CLIA sets laboratory test standards for accuracy, reliability and speed.

In Maryland, COVID-19 testing sites must have a CLIA “waiver” from the federal government allowing them to perform the tests, said Andy Owen, deputy director of media relations for the Maryland Department of Health.

In general, labs in the United States 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 press release warning consumers about unauthorized COVID-19 testing operations that could collect people’s personally identifiable information and use it to steal their identity.

Since then, the department has received no 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 to administer a COVID-19 test must have a national provider ID, which comes from the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, said Kristine Grow, door. -say of 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 generally do not have to pay out of pocket for a COVID-19 test because it is covered by insurance or by the federal government for the uninsured. However, some people are charged if the test is not ordered by their doctor, if it is an urgent service or if it is performed by an out-of-network provider, where “we continue to see prices explode during the public health emergency”. “said Grow.

One way to identify a legitimate test operator is to check lists maintained by states and cities of test operators they work with or fund. But many legitimate test operators are missing from official databases, Bloomgarden said.

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

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

As demand for COVID-19 testing grows, even legitimate test operators may fall short of their commitments.

Theo Servedio stood in line with a handful of others outside the sliding door of a LabQ mobile test van near Columbia University in New York in December. The 19-year-old second was planning to attend a fraternity party, but with COVID-19 cases on the rise, he wanted to get tested first. A sign at the registration table promised a 24-hour delay on his PCR tests.

“They’re both free, but the school test turnaround time 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-19 test results despite the company’s promise of a delay. 48 hours. LabQ was one of several COVID-19 testing companies to receive the warnings in late December and early January.

LabQ did not respond to a request for comment.

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(KHN’s Chaseedaw Giles contributed to this report.)

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(KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues. Along with policy analysis and polling, KHN is one of KFF’s three main operating programs ( Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is a non-profit endowed organization providing information on health issues to the nation.)

©2022 Kaiser Health News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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