Free pop-up COVID testing site in Boyle Heights. Photo by Antonio Mejías-Rentas.
Free COVID tests were available to passersby at the Wilshire/Vermont Metro Station in Koreatown. Photo by Josie Huang/LAist

By Josie Huang

Originally published Jan 19, 2022

Much like masks and hand sanitizing stations, sidewalk tents promising “Free Covid Tests” in giant letters have become all-too-familiar sights during the pandemic.

As omicron continues to spread, the number of these pop-ups have multiplied to meet the testing demands of a panicky public — as have questions about their legitimacy.

Unlike sites operated by health care providers and government agencies, no one has direct oversight of these pop-ups. As quickly as operators set up on street curbs and in parking lots, they can fold up their tents and move to a new site the next day without much accountability.

Is testing at these sites safe and effective? We try to get some answers about a COVID-era line of business that has expanded testing capacity at a time of need, but has also been dogged by tales of fraud and spotty performance from around the country.

Why Do People Use These Sites If Some Are Not Reliable?

Put simply, location and shorter lines than those you’d find at the test sites listed on a public health website. Also: no appointments are needed.

Heather Johnson last month suspected she had developed a cold that her toddler brought home from daycare. She wanted to rule out Covid but had trouble scheduling a test with her medical provider, Kaiser Permanente. Then she remembered the blue tent offering free PCR tests just blocks from her home in the Crenshaw neighborhood.

“It was right on my street on the way to Walgreen’s,” she recalled. “So I’m like, This is very convenient.”

Another Angeleno who wants to only be identified by her last name, Tran, was walking her dog in West L.A. this month when she stopped to get tested at a tent that had appeared only the day before. Tran had been wanting a PCR test since her roommate tested positive weeks earlier, and liked how the sidewalk tent had no wait compared to those at other sites: “When you’re standing in line for so long, I feel like you’re around a lot of people and that puts you at risk already.”

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Do These Pop-Ups Actually Deliver Timely Results?

Some have, some haven’t, according to users. But it may be because of factors out of their control, namely lab delays brought on by omicron.

Johnson, who got tested in December before the rise of the latest variant, was pleased to get her negative test result via text the next day.

Tran, on the other hand, was tested well into the omicron surge. Eleven days after she swabbed her nostrils at the tent in West L.A., she still had no results from the lab.

“Due to many laboratory staff testing positive recently, and the overwhelming increase in demand for testing services, there has been a substantial delay in the turnaround time,” said Dr. Jeffrey Klausner of USC’s Keck Medical School. He is also an independent medical director for Curative, a COVID testing company.

But it’s not unreasonable to expect labs to return results within 48 hours. The state’s public health website reports on the turnaround time for different laboratories, and 80% are coming back within two days.

The tent Tran visited has since disappeared. In its place is a sign saying that it’s “closed until they can get through their backlog of tests that they need to finish,” according to Tran.

Rather than visit any more test sites, Tran said she’ll just wait for the free rapid antigen tests she ordered through the Biden administration. They’re expected to arrive by late January.

Some of the tent pop-ups around L.A. have not updated their signage to mention omicron. Photo by Josie Huang/LAist

What Are Public Officials Saying About These Pop-Ups?

Depends on who you ask.

One Illinois-based company is under investigation in multiple states for failing to provide timely results, if producing any at all.

Officials in other cities such as San Diego and San Francisco have warned that fraudsters may be using the tents as fronts for identity theft.

Scams are also a concern in Los Angeles County, where the Board of Supervisors unanimously voted this month to create a multi-agency task force to crack down on fake sites.

Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who introduced the motion, says she doesn’t know how widespread testing scams are in L.A.

“My goal is to not be the headline where we are the capital of identity fraud based on people getting tested,” Barger said.

But the county’s top health official sounded a different note.

“I want to say that 99% of the pop-up testing sites in L.A. County are legit,” said public health director Barbara Ferrer during a recent press briefing.

She said those residents wanting the assurance of knowing they are using a trusted test site should visit the county’s public health website. (There also a new program where you can pick up a free test kit and drop it off to be processed later.)

But Ferrer added that if a pop-up site does not appear on the county’s list, “it doesn’t mean it’s not reputable.”

“Pop-up sites do exactly that — they travel around and they pop up,” Ferrer said. “I will say that the vast majority of those are reputable.”

Ferrer advised talking to the tent operators, as “it’s pretty easy to figure out which sites are legit.”

Pop-up site on First Street in Boyle Heights.

OK. How Do I Determine If A Site Is Actually Legit?

Here are some questions to ask, based on talking to the experts:

  • Are the tests being used approved by the Food and Drug Administration? 
  • Are you being asked for money? If you are, that’s a sign to walk away.
  • Are you being asked for personal information you’re not comfortable with sharing, such as your Social Security number? You shouldn’t need to provide that. But requests for name, date of birth, address, phone number and e-mail address do not present red flags and are likely being used for reimbursement purposes, according to experts.
  • Are those operating the tents wearing gloves and following infection control and proper sample collection practices?  
  • Can the pop-up operator tell you the name of the lab that will process your sample, and if it has a federal CLIA (Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments) certification?  ”If they don’t know that, that would be a sign that maybe something’s fishy going on,” said Dr. Klausner.  Check out this list of labs in California with all the necessary credentials.

I Visited A Site That Does Not Pass The Smell Test. What Do I Do Now?

In Los Angeles County, Ferrer recommends residents contact the Department of Consumer and Business Affairs “because they will investigate and they will shut down sites obviously that are not appropriately able to do testing.” The department hotline is (800) 593-8222.

Potential fraud can also be reported to the Office of the Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. To submit a complaint, call (800) 447-8477 or log onto TIPS.HHS.GOV.

How Are The Pop-Ups Able To Provide The Tests For Free?

The operators I contacted did not expound on how they and laboratories are being reimbursed for the tests.

But USC’s Klausner said some may be tapping into a program from the federal Department of Health and Human Services that reimburses labs for COVID tests given to uninsured individuals. The pop-up operators receive a cut of the reimbursement.

Curt Canales, CEO at Healthy Care Clinical Laboratory in Montclair, foresees a bureaucratic mess in which many claims will be denied because they’re being filed for individuals who actually have insurance. That, he said, will lead to laboratories attempting to bill insurers.

Who’s Operating These Sites? Do They Have Health Care Training?

Without a registry of these pop-ups, it’s hard to know who’s behind all the tents. Anecdotally, some operators have ties to the health field while others don’t at all.

A representative at one busy tent operating out of the Wilshire/Vermont Metro station said her company was focused on telemedicine before pivoting to COVID testing during the pandemic. Another woman at the tent who was gathering people’s information and passing out tests with gloved hands said she had been trained as a medical assistant and worked at several hospitals.

Justin Nguyen, president of Crestview Clinical Laboratory in Irvine, said in an e-mail that he’s worked with vendors in the past, but hasn’t accepted any new ones lately.

Anybody can do the swab test pop-up sites business

– Justin Nguyen, president, Crestview Clinical Laboratory

Asked whether the vendors he’s hearing from are in health care, Nguyen replied that most said they are. But he added: “Anybody can do the swab test pop-up sites business.”

Indeed, the operator of the site in West L.A. told me his day job is managing real estate properties and that he was running the testing tent on the side. He was not wearing gloves.

The man, who didn’t want his name used because of bad publicity surrounding the tent sites, said he had been hired as a subcontractor by a vendor who operates other tents around the city. That vendor, reached by phone, did not want to give an interview.

The Healthy Care lab’s Canales said during the omicron surge he’s been getting noticeably more calls from people who want to set up collection sites, including someone representing a group of real estate agents.

“They wanted to do swabbing at real estate agencies,” said Canales, who declined to work with them, preferring to focus on contracts with nursing facilities and school systems. “It’s always a red flag to me when they’re not medical professionals. These are just guys who are ducking into this because there’s little oversight by the government.”

Bryan Muhlenbruch, who runs Orange County Labs in Huntington Beach, said he too avoids dealing with pop-ups because of concerns about quality control.

“It’s been our experience that they’ll hire students right out of high school and they’ll show them a swab and a vial and then they go out,” Muhlenbruch said. He questioned whether samples were being properly handled.

“For PCR testing, they have to be transported in a refrigerated or cool, dry environment,” Muhlenbruch said. “You should have it in a biohazard container. You have to wonder on those hot days, whether these guys are throwing samples in the back of their truck, you know?”

How was your experience with a pop-up testing site? Email to share your story.

This report is reprinted with permission from Southern California Public Radio. © 2022 Southern California Public Radio. All rights reserved.

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