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County warns of fake COVID-19 testing sites

San Diego County Chief Medical Officer Eric McDonald.
Eric McDonald, (left), chief medical officer for San Diego County, is shown with Supervisor Chair Nathan Fletcher on Jan. 3 at a COVID-19 testing site in City Heights. McDonald is cautioning people seeking COVID-19 tests that some sites may be unlicensed and operating scams.
(Ariana Drehsler/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Asking certain questions could reveal whether a pop-up operation is legitimate

As lines grow ever longer at COVID-19 testing sites, county health officials are warning that some pop-up operations may be unlicensed and out to scam people.

San Diego County Chief Medical Officer Eric McDonald said he personally encountered an unlicensed testing station near the Old Town Transit Center and could quickly tell it was not legitimate.

“We’ve seen these pop-up occur somewhat near our county stations and other legitimate testing stations,” he said. “It’s fairly easy to see they’re not legitimate when you ask some very basic questions, like what test do you use, what laboratory are you sending it to, what is your healthcare credential to do this test? It usually requires a license to have a professional gather that kind of specimen.”

If they don’t have an answer to those questions, walk away, he advised.

Another clue that the site may not be legitimate is if it is advertising a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) DNA test, McDonald said.

“And you know that is not right, because the virus is an RNA (ribonucleic acid) virus,” he said.

If that’s too many acronyms to keep straight, another tip is to walk away from a site that asks for a Social Security number or home address, which McDonald said could indicate a scam to collect personal information.

The pop-ups may be out to collect someone’s money by providing bogus tests, or they may be providing the tests for free and bilking insurance companies for reimbursements, he said.

The scam isn’t unique to San Diego County, and isn’t the first of its kind during the pandemic.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General updated its alert on illegal COVID-19 activity last week. Scams can include fake testing kits sold door-to-door and surveys that trick people into revealing personal information.

Fraud related to COVID-19 can be reported to the Health and Office of Inspector General by calling 800-HHS-TIPS (800-447-8477) or online at https://oig.hhs.gov/fraud/report-fraud/ https://oig.hhs.gov/fraud/report-fraud/

McDonald said the county has reported what appear to be fake testing sites to the California Department of Public Health Laboratory Field Services.

An email to The San Diego Union-Tribune from the California Department of Public Health said all complaints are taken seriously, and advised people to report issues about testing sites to https://www.cdph.ca.gov/Programs/OSPHLD/LFS/Pages/Complaints.aspx.

The email also noted that some sites advertising themselves as testing sites actually are just collection sites, meaning they take a specimen and then send it to a lab for a testing. Laboratory Field Services has authority if the collection site is operated by a clinical laboratory, but it does not have authority over collection sites that operate independently. Local authorities may regulate independent sites, the email states.

The CDPH email did not respond to a question about whether some testing sites had been shut down for operating without a license, but did say it had looked into Encinitas-based Community Wellness America and found no wrong-doings.

“CDPH inspected Community Wellness America (CWA) and it appears to be operating collection sites and sending the specimens to a licensed California lab for testing,” the email read. “CDPH also inspected the lab that was contracted to do the testing for specimens collected by CWA and found no evidence of non-compliance with clinical lab laws.”

To check if a lab is licensed in California, visit https://www.cdph.ca.gov/Programs/OSPHLD/LFS/Pages/FacilitiesVerification.aspx.

McDonald suggested that unlicensed sites could be reported to the code enforcement office of whatever city they are in, but that might not be an easy solution.

Cities may not have the authority to run off a testing site if it is set up on a sidewalk or other public place under a state law passed in 2018 that encourages street vending as a new class of small business. Created as Senate Bill 946, the law allows cities to regulate street vendors if they create their own ordinance that focuses on health and safety, but not economic competition.

Carlsbad, Vista, El Cajon and National City have created ordinances to regulate street vendors, but the city of San Diego has not. The City Council canceled a hearing on its proposal last month, and a new one is being drafted. The issue has been controversial, and it has left San Diego and other California cities without the authority to shut down street vendors.

Another hurdle in regulating the sites could be simply trying to keep track of them.

“They could be in one place one day and another the next day,” McDonald said.


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