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January 04, 2022

Philly health department warns residents against 'unaffiliated' pop-up COVID-19 testing sites

Employees at the locations claimed to be funded by FEMA, but city officials later discovered that wasn't the case

With coronavirus infections surging to record levels in Philadelphia, the health department issued a warning Monday to avoid pop-up tents offering COVID-19 testing in the city.

The health department was notified last week of a pair of pop-up tents that were offering free COVID-19 testing in Center City. Both sites appeared to be on Chestnut Street.

"The staff who worked at these sites claimed they were funded by FEMA," the health department said Monday. "Over the weekend, it was confirmed that these sites were not funded by FEMA."

A spokesperson from the health department said it's unclear whether the pop-up tents were legitimate, but residents should avoid them and call the health department at (215) 685-5488 to report them if they see them.

The tents in Center City were linked to a Chicago-based company called LabElite, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday afternoon. 

The company has testing sites at locations across the U.S., mostly concentrated in Illinois, and told the Inquirer that suspicions about their mobile testing unit in Philadelphia arose from the test collector LabElite hired to handle the operation. That test collector has been shut down, the company said. 

LabElite has shown up in scattered news reports in recent weeks, including a testing collaboration with a taco restaurant in Illinois.

Another report out of Boston last month said that dozens of PCR test swabs had been sent for analysis from a collection site in Methuen to LabElite's testing center in Chicago, with results expected back within days, but the test swabs wound up being shipped to a woman's home in Hawaii.

Many of the company's issues appear to stem from contractors, and Nikola Nozinic reportedly said he was disturbed to learn that the test collectors in Philadelphia claimed they had been backed by FEMA and were gathering personal information from people who sought the free tests at their tents. 

The Philadelphia health department maintains a list of testing sites and a testing finder to help direct people to available testing options. People who are experiencing symptoms, but can't find testing, are encouraged to act as if they are already positive.

Philadelphia is averaging 2,654 new cases of COVID-19 per day over the last two weeks and a test positivity rate of 38%, the highest figures recorded at any point during the pandemic. Most of the spread is linked to the omicron variant and holiday gatherings that have greatly increased transmission over the last month.