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St. Louis-area officials warn of scams, ‘illegitimate operations’ as COVID test sites pack

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ST. LOUIS — Area officials and residents on Tuesday reported concerns that unauthorized or even fraudulent COVID-19 testing sites were operating in the region, as demand for tests continued to soar.

The sites in doubt ranged from south St. Louis to Belleville. Authorities and residents said the operators collected personal patient information but sometimes didn’t provide test results and other times operated at sites without permission. In one case, police shut down an operator that was asking residents for Social Security and passport numbers.

COVID-19 case numbers have boomed in recent days, and hospitals are hitting new records in admissions. The surge, which has coincided with holiday travel and gatherings, has sent a flood of demand to testing sites as thousands in the region fear exposure or show symptoms.

It’s not clear the testing companies at each of the sites were ill-intentioned. Authorities have not accused the testing companies of fraud.

“It’s hard to say at this point,” said Annie Rice, an alderman in St. Louis’ Tower Grove East and Shaw neighborhoods who has fielded multiple complaints regarding a site in her ward. “I don’t know if I can say for certain it’s a scam.”

Still, officials are urging residents to seek testing at pharmacies, clinics, or state or local health departments.

Fairview Heights Police were called Friday about a pop-up COVID-19 testing provider that had shown up at St. Clair Square, the department said in a statement. By the time police arrived, the people had packed up and left. On Monday the testing site operators showed up again, and police responded. Site operators were asking residents for social security numbers and passport numbers, and did not have the mall’s permission to run a testing site there, the department said in the statement.

Christine Poehling, a spokeswoman for St. Clair Square, said in an email that the pop-up site was “in no way affiliated with the mall,” and the individuals who ran it were banned from the property.

There is a state-operated testing site already located at St. Clair Square, open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Saturday.

Illinois State Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said during a briefing Monday that some pop-up testing sites are helping fill demand for testing, but she also urged residents to ask questions if they are worried about a provider.

“If you have any doubts about the testing location that you’re looking at, go ahead and ask some questions: What lab is the testing site using? When will you receive the results, and from whom?” Ezike said.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said some of these testing sites are either leaving patients waiting for results for long periods of time, or aren’t returning results at all. Pritzker sent a letter to Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul on Monday, saying “illegitimate, fly-by-night testing operations” have cropped up, especially in the Chicago area. He said they have been unfairly charging people for tests, providing inaccurate results or failing to provide results.

An Illinois health department spokeswoman said patients should contact local police and the state Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division if they suspect fraud or criminal activity. Illinois state-run COVID-19 testing sites are free, and while Social Security numbers are requested, they are not required.

The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department received a report on Monday from two individuals who said they had been tested at a temporary site that appeared in front of Ruler Foods in Tower Grove East on Dec. 29 and had not received any results.

Hannah Rainey, a 29-year-old music teacher from Gravois Park, said she and her sister went to the site on Friday. Rainey said they were asked to provide their Social Security numbers and drivers’ license numbers, but they chose not to provide either.

She said there was one person operating the site, and after she received her test, he packed up and left — leaving her sister without a test.

Rainey was told she would get her results back in two to three days, but she said Tuesday she still had not received them. In the meantime, she was able to get a PCR test at another site, and it came back negative.

Rice, the alderman, said she had received multiple complaints from residents who got tested last week at the site and never received results.

“I’d be cautious of pop-up sites that don’t have a company or a hospital attached,” Rice said.

Harold Bailey, a spokesman for the city health department, acknowledged in an email Tuesday that the department had received questions about the testing site in Tower Grove East, and said the site is not affiliated with the city or state health departments.

Bailey said the city referred the issue to the state Board of Registration for the Healing Arts.

Demand for COVID-19 tests has surged in the wake of holiday gatherings and a spike of virus cases.

On Tuesday, the area’s four big health care systems — BJC HealthCare, SSM Health, Mercy and St. Luke’s — reported a total of 1,023 patients with confirmed COVID-19, a new record. Last winter, the count peaked at 962 patients on Dec. 1, 2020.

On average over the past week, 168 people were admitted each day to area hospitals with COVID-19, also the highest seen so far throughout the pandemic. And an average of 10 people are dying of COVID-19 each day in St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force hospitals, double what it was at the start of December.

The number of hospitalized children ages 18 and younger with COVID-19 also continues to climb, reaching 61 on Tuesday. The number had doubled over the weekend, going from 26 on Thursday to 54 on Monday.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its estimates on Tuesday for coronavirus variant prevalence. The new estimates show the omicron variant accounted for 95% of U.S. cases last week, up from 77% the week before.

In the Midwest region that includes Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska, the omicron variant was estimated to account for 77% of cases last week, up from 35% the week prior.

Michele Munz of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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