CLEARWATER, Fla. — Authorities are warning people about questionable COVID-19 testing sites that health experts say may put patients' health and personal information at risk.
Scripps station WFTS in Tampa, Florida, uncovered allegations that a company, which operates hundreds of testing sites nationwide, failed to provide test results to some consumers and sent results to others before they even took a test.
A massive COVID-19 outbreak in December and January caused by the omicron variant drove millions of Floridians to test sites statewide.
Steve Weiner owns COVID Same Day PCR near the Tampa International Airport.
"I had 120 people wrapped around the building and I had to get out and basically gave them a speech, saying 'I'm sorry this is happening, it's happening everywhere,'" Weiner said.
State-run sites often had to turn people away as the number of people showing up for tests outpaced available supplies. That was especially true for PCR tests, which are considered the most accurate.
"It's really hard to get a turnaround for your tests," Elena Maluzin said.
Maluzin and her husband needed a test for an upcoming cruise.
"Everything is empty, everything is taken. There's no available appointments. Nothing," Maluzin said.
It's especially difficult to find an appointment for a PCR test at national pharmacy chains, where most appointments to get tested are unavailable for at least three days.
Out of desperation to get back to work or travel, some people are turning to pop-up clinics, which are sites that don't show up as trusted sources on county health department lists.
Erin Kates now knows why.
"We ended up going to get tested so my husband could return to work. That's when we went to this testing site," Kates said.
After she couldn't get an appointment anywhere else, Kates, her husband and her three children went to a Cape Coral, Florida clinic operated by the Center for COVID Control.
The sign out front advertised free COVID-19 testing.
"We had to take a picture of our driver's license. They've got our driver's license number. Take a picture of our insurance card. They have our insurance information. So is it really free?" Kates said.
Soon after registering, she got an email with her test results.
"We were still in line waiting to be tested. We hadn't been swabbed yet. We hadn't gotten up to the gentleman to be tested and we had already received an email stating that we were negative for COVID," she said.
Kates' husband, her three children and three other people in line all received emails saying they tested negative before taking the test.
"There were people in line with us who were getting on planes, going to visit elderly family members. Just to think of those people — God forbid they were positive," Kates said.
"There are going to be opportunists who are going to make themselves available, 'You need a test, I can give you a test,'" said University of South Florida Healthcare Vice President Jay Wolfson.
"We don't have the resources"
Wolfson says it's hard to police testing sites that aren't playing by the rules.
"We don't have the resources at the county level; we don't have the resources at the state level, the federal government certainly doesn't have the resources to monitor compliance," he said.
"And as fast as you can get one bad guy out, there's another guy popping up," Weiner said.
Journalists with WFTS wanted to check out the Center for COVID Control's two Tampa-area clinics for themselves.
The first site — an empty metal office building with a tent in a field — was a bust.
A sign written in magic marker on notebook paper said the clinic was "closed due to a supply shortage."
The next stop was a strip mall in Clearwater, Florida.
Melanie Payne, a producer with WFTS who is fully vaccinated and has had a booster shot, had been experiencing cold symptoms. She wanted to get tested.
Inside the clinic, she scanned a code, provided her insurance and ID, then had her nose swabbed by the only person who appeared to be working there.
Rapid antigen tests were the only tests offered that day.
While waiting for results, Payne took her own rapid test that she recently purchased from a pharmacy.
After about 15 minutes, that test showed she was negative for COVID-19.
An hour after that, she got an email from the Center from COVID Control with the same result.
Agencies issue warnings
But according to the Beter Business Bureau, the drug store test was likely more reliable.
The BBB gives the Center for COVID Control an "F" and issued an emergency alert.
The Federal Trade Commission also warned consumers about "fake" COVID-19 testing sites.
"Their end-game is to get consumers' personal information, maybe bill your insurance company when they claim it's free and a lot of consumers complain that they never receive the tests anyway," said Bryan Oglesby, spokesperson for the Better Business Bureau.
The Clearwater clinic was closed the next day.
A sign said locations nationwide were closed for a week to "re-train our management and staff while rolling out new procedures to help meet the unprecedented demand for testing."
In their return visit, WFTS journalists ran into a woman still waiting for her PCR test results from a test taken a week earlier so she could go back to work.
She finally reached a company representative on the phone who said it was never processed.
"I'm not gonna get it," she said. "That's horrible. That's horrible."
Kates, a cancer survivor with a weakened immune system who was told by the Center for COVID Control that she tested negative, got some bad news of her own.
"I ended up going to the emergency room the next day because I was having such difficulty breathing. Turns out I was positive for COVID," Kates said.
She advises people to do their homework before going to a pop-up testing site.
"Google the different testing sites before you go," Kates said. "If we had done our research beforehand, we would have seen that this testing site was not legitimate. There were complaints beforehand."
"Check this company out. Are they verified through the state of Florida? Are they a legitimate site that can give these tests?" Oglesby said.
"Do your homework. Do your due diligence," Wolfson said. "You're messing with your own health and the health of the people you care about and love."
This story was originally published by Adam Walser on Scripps station WFTS in Tampa, Florida.