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One attendee captured a photo of one of the testing sites on Twitter. Photo: Twitter- @NicoleisNik

Philly copes with potential scam COVID test sites as demand soars

Philly is currently experiencing its highest infection rates of the entire COVID-19 pandemic thanks to the Omicron variant.

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The Philadelphia Department of Health is warning residents to be wary of another potential pandemic-related scam.

On Monday, Jan. 3, health officials sent out a notice saying they were notified of some small pop-up tents offering free COVID-19 testing in Center City. With tests so difficult to obtain, it sounds positive on the surface. 

However, staffers were allegedly lying about what agency they’re from, and requesting unusual amounts of personal information, including social security numbers. 

“A legitimate site will take your personal information to alert you about the results and report them to the Health Department. We don’t know what some of these other sites will do with your personal information,” city health spokesperson James Garrow told the Philadelphia Inquirer

The health department has an online database of all legitimate testing sites, but it doesn’t necessarily contain every single one. 

“Sometimes partners will set up testing events without notifying us,” Garrow said. 

Over the winter holidays, some people who visited COVID testing tents in Center City were told the sites were funded by FEMA. 

The White House did say recently that Philadelphia might get federally funded pop-up testing, but no details have been announced. When the city health department asked FEMA about the existing pop-ups, the agency said it hadn’t set up any sites in Philly at all. 

Two tents have been reported so far: one at 13th and Chestnut, and one at 15th and Chestnut. 

According to The Inquirer, the sites were run by the Chicago-based company Lab Elite, which is registered in the CDC’s database. But on its website, it only mentions running testing sites in Illinois. 

Garrow said to look out for a few red flags to determine whether a testing site is legitimate or not. Residents should be suspicious if the pop-up tent is located in the middle of the sidewalk, if staffers say they’re from FEMA, and if there’s no logo on the materials. 

“If you just see a tent set up there with a table, and somebody hand-drew a sign that says ‘free testing,’ probably not legitimate,” Garrow said.

The chaos and confusion arrived amid a surge of COVID-19 infections 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.

The situation also scared residents who had been tested at the sites, many of whom were still awaiting results.

Alex Pearlstein went to one of the tents. He told 6ABC that he was told the staff was from FEMA and that they were doing free testing. He visited the site on Dec. 29, and was promised test results within 36 hours or sooner.

When he didn’t hear back from anyone, he managed to get an at-home test kit over the counter on New Year’s Eve, and tested positive.

"They needed my insurance information, so I gave them my insurance information, my email, my address,” he said. 

LabElite owner Nikola Nozinic blamed the issues in Philadelphia on the local test collector hired to collect the samples and has since shut them down. 

Nozinic apologized to people who were confused. He told the Inquirer he was shocked to learn that his company’s pop-up tent had been promoting itself as a FEMA affiliate. 

”They shouldn’t be saying that,” Nozinic said. He said that photo identification was required, but no staffer should have asked for social security numbers.

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