When thousands of Philadelphians took COVID-19 tests in downtown tents last week, few realized their nasal swabs were collected by a New Jersey-based marketing agency and then shipped to a lab in Chicago trials, owned by a plumber and bar owner.
But the alarm bells rang on Monday when health officials urged residents to avoid testing in pop-up tents, warning that test collectors had falsely identified themselves as FEMA partners and may have – even being asked for social security numbers.
More than 4,000 Philadelphians have questioned whether their personal information is safe and whether they can trust the results of PCR tests.
Nikola Nizonic, owner of Lab Elite in Chicago, made no secret of his exasperation when he learned he was having trouble in Philly.
“It’s a complete show,” Nizonic told The Inquirer Monday, heaving a sigh. “We never ask for social security. “
READ MORE: Where to get a free COVID test in Philadelphia
Lab Elite, a federally accredited toxicology lab founded in 2020, blamed the problem on a New Jersey-based subcontractor that another contractor hired to collect the test samples in Philadelphia. Lab Elite said the personal data provided to them is secure and that they ramped up test results on Monday, after the city’s warning made headlines. The tents have been closed and the company has no plans to return to Philadelphia.
In response to the pop-up tents, officials in Philadelphia said they were working to put in place a regulatory process for test sites, including inspections and potential penalties. The city did not immediately have more details to offer on this process.
But the problems in Philadelphia also upset officials nationwide amid record spike in COVID-19 cases: there is a dearth of available tests; new companies quickly emerged to fill the void, many of them run by entrepreneurs with no medical background; and city and state officials do not always regulate and are aware of testing operations.
And there is no immediate end in sight for the testing issues. President Joe Biden said in December that his administration would distribute 500 million rapid home tests and set up a FEMA testing site in Philadelphia, but no further details were made public. The city is also working to buy rapid tests and contract with more test providers, Health Department spokesman James Garrow said.
The pandemic has created opportunities for entrepreneurs to venture into the testing and immunization business – and not all of them are qualified or reputable, as Philadelphia officials learned last year from their unfortunate partnership with them. students who started Philly Fighting COVID.
Concerns about unsavory testing sites have escalated in recent days, with cities such as Chicago, St. Louis and Jersey City are also warning residents of fraudulent pop-ups. But some pop-up sites are legitimate, only adding to the confusion for people looking to get dabbed.
“We just don’t have enough supply for demand… and the government doesn’t have the capacity or the staff to be proactive,” said John Cui, associate professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business who has studied how to encourage access to tests.
READ MORE: Philly officials warn residents against using pop-up COVID-19 test sites in downtown
The operation and funding of COVID-19 testing sites can be complex and may involve multiple companies. People are generally not charged for the tests; instead, the testing company bills its health insurance or the federal government. The Pennsylvania Department of Health regulates the labs that analyze test samples for COVID-19, but not the testing operations themselves.
In the case of Lab Elite, the company operates a lab in Chicago that contracts with other companies to collect and send samples to them for testing. A company called Digital Dash is collecting samples for Lab Elite in Chicago, and co-owner Azeem Macci said a New Jersey-based company has contacted him to start a similar operation in Philadelphia.
Macci said Digital Dash trained representatives of that company, LP Global Inc., and sent them test kits to use. But he said he did not provide brochures with the FEMA logo on it, leading city officials to question the operation. And he said LP Global told him that she had municipal permits to pitch tents on street corners, but was unable to provide proof. The city said it did not have a contract or deal with the company, which did not respond to calls for comment.
The incident also raises questions about the reliability of test samples handled by unregulated groups. Stanley Weiss, a physician and professor of medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, said even the most experienced operators can lose or mishandle test samples, compromising individual results or the reliability of test data.
“It is simply unacceptable,” Weiss said.
READ MORE: What you need to know about the accuracy of rapid home COVID-19 tests
Lab Elite’s test tents closed on Friday, just days after opening.
Zishan Alvi, president of Lab Elite, said only his lab received personal information and photos of people’s driver’s licenses, as online forms were sent directly to his servers in Chicago. And these forms do not include social security numbers, he stressed.
“We have a very clean operation and we do everything right when it comes to testing,” said Alvi.
Although Lab Elite is an accredited laboratory, its leaders do not have experience in the medical field.
Nizonic owns a business with over a dozen businesses under his belt in the Chicago area, from a real estate group to a plumbing company to a bar called Aberdeen Taproom.
As the pandemic enters its third year, Nizonic’s laboratory activities are booming. It brought in more than $ 1.1 million in revenue last year, according to public records. But he said it’s not in the business to make a quick buck.
“We’re on the long term,” he said, noting that his company offers other toxicology tests.
But Lab Elite is no longer planning tests in Philadelphia. “I kind of have a bad taste,” Alvi said. “We should never have been there in the first place, but I can’t go back. The only thing we can do is publish everyone’s results. “
Garrow said city officials are happy to hear that some residents have received Lab Elite results. He said that people who have visited pop-up sites and have not received any results should call the provider, and submit a complaint via the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office if they are not satisfied with the response they receive.
“We have no proof that these tents are a scam, but we also have no proof that they are not,” said Garrow. “Our concern is that, given… the fact that anyone can pitch a tent and say they are doing COVID testing, people should be very careful. “