Philadelphia will try to regulate COVID-19 test sites after confusion over pop-up tents
The pop-up testing tents that falsely claimed to have FEMA funding are shut down. But the incident exposed flaws in the testing system.
When thousands of Philadelphians took COVID-19 tests at tents in Center City last week, few realized their nasal swabs were being collected by a New Jersey-based marketing agency and then shipped to a Chicago testing lab, owned by a plumber and bar owner.
But alarm bells rang on Monday when health officials urged residents to avoid testing at pop-up tents, warning that test collectors had falsely identified themselves as FEMA partners and may have even asked for Social Security numbers.
More than 4,000 Philadelphians were left wondering if their personal information was safe and if they could trust the PCR test results.
Nikola Nozinic, Lab Elite’s owner in Chicago, did not hide his exasperation when he learned he had problems in Philly.
“This is a complete s — show,” Nozinic told The Inquirer on Monday, letting out a sigh. “We don’t ask for Social Security, ever.”
» READ MORE: Where to get a free COVID test in Philadelphia
Lab Elite, a federally accredited toxicology lab founded in 2020, blamed the issue on a New Jersey-based subcontractor that another contractor hired to collect the test samples in Philadelphia. Lab Elite said personal data provided to them is secure and they expedited test results Monday, after the city’s warning made headlines. The tents have been shut down, and the company has no plans to return to Philadelphia.
In response to the pop-up tents, Philadelphia officials said they’re working to set up a regulatory process for testing sites, including inspections and potential sanctions. The city didn’t immediately have more details to offer about that process.
But issues in Philadelphia are also vexing officials nationwide amid a record-breaking surge in COVID-19 cases: There’s a shortage of available tests; new companies have quickly emerged to fill the void, many run by entrepreneurs without medical experience; and city and state officials don’t regulate and aren’t always aware of testing operations.
And there’s no immediate end in sight to testing issues. President Joe Biden said in December that his administration will distribute 500 million at-home rapid tests and set up a FEMA testing site in Philadelphia, but further details haven’t been publicized. The city is also working to purchase rapid tests, and contract with more providers for testing, said Health Department spokesperson James Garrow.
The pandemic has created opportunities for entrepreneurs to jump into the business of testing and vaccination — and not all of them are qualified or reputable, as Philadelphia officials learned last year from their ill-fated partnership with the college students who started Philly Fighting COVID.
Concerns about disreputable testing sites have ramped up in recent days, with cities such as Chicago, St. Louis, and Jersey City also warning residents about fraudulent pop-ups. But some pop-up sites are legitimate, only adding to the confusion for people looking to get swabbed.
“We just don’t have enough supply for the demand ... and the government doesn’t have the capacity or the staff to be proactive,” said John Cui, an associate professor at Georgetown University McDonough School of Business who has studied how to incentivize testing access.
» READ MORE: Philly officials warn residents against using pop-up COVID-19 testing sites in Center City
The operation and financing of COVID-19 testing sites can be complex, and can involve multiple companies. People aren’t typically charged for the tests; instead, the testing company bills their health insurance or the federal government. The Pennsylvania Department of Health regulates laboratories that analyze test samples for COVID-19, but not the testing operations themselves.
In the case of Lab Elite, the company runs a laboratory in Chicago that contracts with other companies to collect and send them samples to test. A company called Digital Dash collects samples for Lab Elite in Chicago, and co-owner Azeem Macci said a New Jersey-based firm contacted him about starting a similar operation in Philadelphia.
Macci said Digital Dash trained representatives from that company, LP Global Inc., and sent them test kits to use. But he said he didn’t provide brochures with the FEMA logo — which caused city officials to question the operation. And he said LP Global told him it had city permits to set up tents on street corners, but were unable to provide proof. The city said it didn’t have a contract or agreement in place with the company, which did not return calls for comment.
The incident also raises questions about the reliability of test samples handled by unregulated groups. Stanley Weiss, physician and professor of medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, said even the most proven operators can lose or mishandle test samples, compromising individual results or the reliability of testing data.
“It’s just unacceptable,” Weiss said.
» READ MORE: What to know about the accuracy of rapid at-home COVID-19 tests
Lab Elite’s testing tents shut down on Friday, just days after they opened.
Zishan Alvi, Lab Elite’s president, said only his laboratory received personal information and photos of people’s drivers licenses, because the online forms went straight to his servers in Chicago. And those forms don’t include Social Security numbers, he emphasized.
“We are running a very clean operation and we are doing everything by the book as far as running the tests,” Alvi said.
Although Lab Elite is an accredited lab, its executives don’t have experience in the medical field.
Nozinic is a business owner with over a dozen companies under his belt in the Chicago area, from a real estate group to a plumbing business to a bar called the Aberdeen Taproom.
With the pandemic entering its third year, Nozinic’s lab business is booming. It reported more than $1.1 million in revenue last year, according to public records. But he said it is not in business to make a quick buck.
“We’re in for the long term,” he said, noting his company offers other toxicology tests.
But Lab Elite isn’t planning to do any more tests in Philadelphia. ”I kind of have a bad taste,” Alvi said. “We should have never went in the first place but I cannot go back. The only thing we can do is just get everybody’s results out.”
Garrow said city officials were pleased to learn that some residents have received results from Lab Elite. He said people who have visited pop-up sites and haven’t received results should call the provider, and submit a complaint through the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office if they aren’t satisfied with the answer they receive.
“We have no evidence that these tents are a scam, but we also have no evidence that they aren’t,” Garrow said. “Our worry is that, given … the fact that anyone can set up a tent and say they’re conducting COVID testing, people should take extra special care.”