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Philly officials warn residents against using pop-up COVID-19 testing sites in Center City

LabElite, the company offering the tests and claiming to have federal funding, had multiple tents in Center City last week. The company is based in Chicago.

Lab Elite, a company offering the tests and claiming to have federal funding, had a tent set up at 13th and Chestnut. Philadelphia officials warn resident not to use these sites.
Lab Elite, a company offering the tests and claiming to have federal funding, had a tent set up at 13th and Chestnut. Philadelphia officials warn resident not to use these sites.Read moreMax Marin / Staff

Philadelphia officials are warning residents to avoid pop-up tents offering COVID-19 testing in Center City that claim to be funded by the federal government.

The tents started operating around Center City in late December and city officials confirmed over the weekend that they had falsely claimed they were backed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

» READ MORE: What to know about the accuracy of rapid at-home COVID-19 tests

Lab Elite, a Chicago-based company offering PCR tests, runs testing sites in several cities and said it collected about 4,000 test samples in Philadelphia last month. Owner Nikola Nozinic blamed the issues in Philadelphia on the local test collector hired to collect the samples and said he has shut them down.

The confusion came amid a surge in COVID-19 cases in Philadelphia that has made it hard to find available tests. The city is averaging the highest number of new daily cases since the pandemic began, with an average of 2,654 new cases per day in the past two weeks as of Monday. The situation also alarmed residents who had been tested at the sites, many of whom were still awaiting results.

“My daughter and I had looked all over for rapid tests after some friends tested positive, but we couldn’t find any,” said local community organizer and college professor Marwan Kreidie, who got tested at one of the Lab Elite sites.

Many legitimate mobile testing operations have emerged since the pandemic began, offering free testing to residents by billing insurance providers or seeking reimbursements from the federal government. Still, the federal government has warned the public about fraudulent testing sites seeking to steal people’s data.

When The Inquirer asked about the Lab Elite site last week, Health Department spokesperson James Garrow said the group wasn’t familiar, but that alone wasn’t “anything sinister.”

The city issued a warning Monday after officials became worried about what the company might do with residents’ personal information. Garrow said they heard reports that people were asked to provide their social security numbers, which isn’t standard practice for testing sites.

» READ MORE: Where to get a free COVID-19 test in Philadelphia

“Beyond the worry about being scammed, we are worried about people who were depending on getting results back from a site that wouldn’t actually be testing them,” Garrow said.

Lab Elite says the tests are valid and that people’s personal information is safe.

Nozinic apologized to people who were confused. He said he was stunned to learn Monday that his company’s pop-up tent had been advertising itself as a FEMA affiliate.

”They shouldn’t be saying that,” Nozinic said. Photo identification was required, he said, but the collector shouldn’t have asked for social security numbers, either.

Nozinic said his lab shut down the testing pop-ups Friday after identifying issues with the collector.

“These guys were kind of running a wild s—show, so they were ordered to shut them down,” he said.

Nozinic said he hired LP Global Inc., a New Jersey-based firm that claims to provide market consulting services, to collect the test samples in Philadelphia.

Juan Polanco, the owner of LP Global, did not immediately return calls or text message for comment.

The situation in Philadelphia wasn’t the first time Lab Elite has made headlines. Last month, a FedEx package filled with hundreds of COVID-19 test samples was delivered to a family’s home in Hawaii instead of the company’s lab in Chicago. The samples came from a testing site in Massachusetts, and Lab Elite told the Boston Globe it didn’t know how the mistake happened. FedEx apologized and said it would investigate.

Lab Elite, which is registered in the CDC’s database of accredited laboratories, was founded in Chicago just over a year ago, at a time when startup testing labs and sample collectors were springing up across the country to meet an ongoing demand.

Like some other entrepreneurs looking to fill the need, Nozinic does not have medical experience.

Business records indicate he owned a plumbing company, a construction firm, and a handful of bars in the Chicago area prior to opening the lab in December 2020. His lab holds agreements with collection agencies in seven cities, including Chicago, Miami, and Philadelphia, he said.

In Philadelphia, some residents were alarmed by the city’s warning, while others said the operation had seemed legitimate. A handful of people who spoke with The Inquirer said they were asked to share photos of their drivers licenses, but weren’t asked for their social security numbers.

Nozinic said that about 400 of the 4,000 samples remained pending, and results would be provided in the next few days.

Adam Teterus said he came across a tent at 15th and Chestnut on Tuesday as he was trying to get an appointment at an urgent care facility. He said he thought the lack of branding was “weird.” He asked and learned that Lab Elite was running the site, and said he wasn’t concerned that they asked for personal information.

“I can’t possibly overstate, I was pretty desperate to get tested,” he said.

Emily Earl said she walked by a tent at Eighth and Market Streets last week and got a test for her 1-year-old son, who had been exposed at a day care.

“They were just like, ‘hey do you need a COVID test?’ and I was like ‘actually, we do,’ ” she said.

But after she walked away, Earl said, she was concerned about its legitimacy. As of Monday, she was still awaiting results and feeling like the experience “was definitely a little weird.”

City officials acknowledged that residents are desperate to find tests.

“Due to the overwhelming need for testing right now, people who are experiencing symptoms, but cannot find testing, are encouraged to act as if they are already positive,” the city’s health department said in a news release.