What lawmakers are doing to stop unregulated, unregistered COVID-19 testing sites

Here's what lawmakers are doing to add oversight

HOW WE GOT HERE

The omicron variant of the coronavirus continues to lead to high demand for COVID-19 testing. People desperate to get swabbed are lining up anywhere with a sign for a free test.

KPRC 2 News uncovered concerning issues at obscure pop-up sites conveniently placed in many urban and rural neighborhoods in the Houston area in recent weeks. The city of Houston and state officials are now warning people about where they’re getting tested due to questionable operations and lengthy delays.

“Obviously, we didn’t prepare for these types of unscrupulous testing sites that pop up,” said State Rep. Ron Reynolds of Missouri City, who said the state needs to act in a timely manner.

Texas does not register nor regulate pop-up testing sites, which is part of the problem, according to Dr. Joseph Varon with United Memorial Medical Center.

“The lack of regulation pretty much allows anybody to be some their own little pop-up testing site,” Varon said.

For example, KPRC 2 found a red former shipping container stationed in a Cypress parking lot. There were no signs visible, no name of a lab nor a licensed healthcare provider. The site only had a QR code to upload a driver’s license and enter personal information, including a social security number, which is not required for a free covid test.

“These people are saying that they’ll get you results in one to three days and it’s a lie, “said Rosemary Perez, who waited several days for her daughter’s results.

KPRC 2 found other cases of delays and pop-up sites vanishing across the Houston area. Kelly Burns said she visited a pop-up tent in northwest Harris County that disappeared a week later. Burns said she has no idea who was in charge or how to contact them.

“I don’t know what they’re going to do with my information, and why they would have taken it if they’re not going to do COVID testing,” Burns said.

Three weeks later, Burns said she’s still doesn’t know if her test is positive or negative.

WHAT WE’RE STILL FINDING

KPRC 2 News also found local labs struggling to meet demands, causing the problem to stretch into other states. A Kentucky Health Department, WEDCO District Health Department & Home Health Agency, cut ties with Texas Diagnostic Laboratories after waiting a week without receiving results or a response.

“I’ve tested a lot here in Kentucky and never really knew where my lab results went, but I was really surprised they were all the way in Texas,” said Caroline Arthur, who lives in Scott County, Kentucky.

Arthur said after waiting a week she decided to take a test at a clinic and received her results that same night.

Texas Diagnostic Laboratories, the west Houston-based lab, also handles local tests tied to some of those pop-up sites.

Shehzad Dalal, the chief operating officer, said the delays are related to sick staff members and the holiday surge, but has since ramped up operations.

“We’re going to do the right thing and we’re not going to bill for those tests,” Dalal said of test that took longer than five days for his lab to process.

Meanwhile, the lines at some of the locations we first visited in Cypress and West Houston are shorter these days, but little has changed.

“Shady? Yeah. I don’t really like it because if you were to go to CVS or Walgreens it would be more professional because they know you need your results,” said Brandon Jordan, who is waiting for results after visiting the red pop-up trailer in Cypress.

Jordan said he has reservations about going to get tested at the site but ultimately decided to go per his girlfriend’s recommendation.

WHAT’S NEXT

The city of Houston and Harris County are now warning people to avoid pop-up sites and only visit ones associated with a hospital or municipalities.

“I know there may be people who are popping up and offering testing,” said Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner. “I wouldn’t necessarily trust those pop-up sites.”

KPRC 2 told U.S Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee of Texas about some of the issues people were experiencing at the temporary sites in late December.

“The pop-up sites are just what they say. Pop up and gone. Or pop up no answers or pop up the wrong information,” Jackson-Lee said.

On Jan. 5, 2022, Rep. Jackson-Lee called on the Federal Bureau of Investigation to take a closer look at temporary covid testing sites nationwide after reports of fraud in other U.S. cities. The FBI confirmed to KPRC 2 that they received Jackson-Lee’s letter.

KPRC 2 also reached out to State Representative Ron Reynolds of Missouri City.

“Now, there was a big backlog because of the holidays, and I gave them an extra day or two, but this is ridiculous,” said Reynolds. “So, I am not making excuses for these labs or these testing sites. I think we have to hold them to a high standard.”

Reynolds said the state needs more oversight of pop-up testing locations and he’s reached out to Texas House Speaker Dave Phelan to see what actions the state can take.

“Even though we’re not in a legislative session there are things that can be done. We can’t wait for another year to get back in the session to do this. This is something we need to be dealing with now,” he said. “I think that through good reporting and investigative journalism we are aware of it. We can’t say that we don’t know. Now, it’s incumbent upon us to find solutions to give people confidence and make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

HOW TO REPORT ISSUES

Beyond the FBI, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General confirmed to KPRC 2 they’ve received complaints of similar issues across the country.

“Our priority remains the health and safety of the millions of people across the country during this public health emergency. HHS-OIG is aware of complaints related to COVID-19 testing and the potential for fraudsters to leverage the ongoing pandemic for personal profit. We will continue to encourage the public to stay vigilant and report suspicions of COVID-19 health care fraud.”

Although the Texas Attorney General’s Office told KPRC2 they haven’t had any complaints, you can report any testing issues to them here: Consumer Complaint Form | Office of the Attorney General (force.com)

You can also call the Houston Health Department’s call center at (832) 393-4220 with any complaints regarding a non-affiliated HHD site.

To read The FBI’s warning about COVID testing fraud click here: FBI Warns of Potential Fraud in Antibody Testing for COVID-19 — FBI