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COVID Test Shortage Forces Chicagoans To ‘Hell-Hole’ Pop-Up Sites With Unmasked Workers, Missing Results

Chicagoans are reporting problems at the largely unregulated pop-up sites: Results never come in. Workers fail to wear masks or gloves. Some facilities have tried to charge for tests that should be free.

A man provided a photo of a pop-up testing site where a worker wore a mask under her chin, exposing her nose and mouth.
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LOGAN SQUARE — Chicago is facing its worst-ever COVID-19 surge, with cases skyrocketing and officials urging people to get tested — but that’s proven easier said than done.

At-home tests have flown off store shelves, and health care providers, clinics and pharmacies have quickly booked up during the holiday weeks. The city and state provide few of their own testing facilities in Chicago. That’s left many people scrambling and turning to largely unregulated pop-up testing sites that have, in recent weeks, appeared overwhelmed, chaotic and using questionable practices.

Pop-up testing sites are run by various companies, but more than a dozen Chicagoans told Block Club about numerous issues at such sites across the city: Results that never come in. Workers not wearing masks or gloves. Workers telling people with insurance to put down that they don’t have it. Lines that stretch down the block. Facilities that are dirty and so crammed full of people social distancing is impossible. Some facilities trying to charge for tests that should be free.

Spokespeople for the city and state health departments said their agencies aren’t responsible for regulating the pop-ups, and those facilities aren’t recommended on the departments’ websites.

But officials have suggested everyone, including fully vaccinated people, get tested before gathering for the holidays or if they think they’ve been exposed to COVID-19. During a news conference last week, Dr. Allison Arwady, head of the Chicago Department of Public Health, said residents need to “double down” on testing, masking and vaccinating during this surge.

While attempting to do that, many Chicagoans are finding the only open spots are at such pop-ups.

Robert McNees, of Rogers Park, and his family went to get tested Dec. 22 so they could submit the results to his daughter’s school and be safe during the holidays. Their usual testing site was booked up, so they went to a pop-up that had been recommended by a friend.

The McNeeses went to the site and followed its directions, which are common across such pop-ups: They scanned a QR code that took them to a website where they provided their information, including photos of their insurance cards and driver’s licenses. They were provided a confirmation code and told that when the test was done, the code would be submitted along with the test, McNees said.

But once they went inside, testing was not so straightforward. The facility was crowded, and people were simply holding up their phones and being handed tests to do on their own, McNees said.

“It was very busy, so it was kind of chaotic,” McNees said.

The family didn’t feel comfortable, so they got their sample collection bags and went outside — then realized they hadn’t been given instructions. McNees went back inside, where he found a clipboard with photocopied sheets with instructions — but the copies were hard to read.

They left without submitting any tests or providing any information showing they’d gone to the site, McNees said.

“Just kind of given the chaos and everything, we thought that we probably wouldn’t be too confident in the results of the test, if we had collected it correctly or stored the sample correctly,” McNees said.

Despite that, about five hours later, every member of the family got emails from the company that runs the site — saying their tests had been collected and tested negative for COVID-19.

It was “very surprising,” McNees said.

Confused about how they could have tested negative when they never even checked in to the site, much less provided a test, McNees contacted the company. He called at 9 a.m. — but there were so many people in front of him he was on hold for about four hours, he said.

Once McNees did reach someone, she said she was unsure why the family had gotten negative results and gave him a phone number for a higher-level worker, he said.

McNees called. He still hasn’t heard back.

Instead, the McNeeses woke up early the next morning and got in line to get a spot at their usual testing location.

‘The Only Option We Had’

The pop-ups are run by various companies, but many are similar: They set up in a parking lot or a storefront, don’t require appointments and offer rapid and PCR tests. People provide their ID and insurance information online and are swabbed or provided with a swab they administer themselves. They often have bare-bones websites and little public contact information. The pop-up storefronts often have folding tables and little furniture.

Confusion and disorganization at the pop-ups have become common during the holiday surge in cases and testing.

At the same time, these pop-ups are the only place people can get tested in many instances. Several Chicagoans told Block Club they don’t trust the pop-ups anymore, which leaves them with no options for getting tested in their neighborhood.

Sam, a Logan Square woman who asked to use her first name so as not to disclose medical information, went to get a COVID-19 test last week after someone in her household exhibited symptoms. But she doesn’t have a car, so she couldn’t travel far or go to a drive-thru testing spot at a pharmacy like Walgreens.

The only site within walking distance was a pop-up that’s set up inside a building that used to be a convenience store, Sam said. The line moved quickly, she said — but once she got inside, the space was “filthy,” and workers, who weren’t wearing gloves, were collecting people’s contact information on torn-out sheets of notebook paper.

The worker who provided Sam with a sample collection bag was sanitizing surfaces with hand sanitizer and not wearing gloves, Sam said.

Then, the facility was delayed in sending testing results.

It’s “frustrating that we can’t go to a Walgreens or a CVS because we don’t have a car,” Sam said. “That’s just unfair and wrong. This is literally our only option, and it’s really distressing to know my only option … is shitty, hell-hole medical care because I don’t have a car. That’s just messed up.

“… I guess I just feel upset that it looks like a money-grab, and it’s not a medical facility being run by medical professionals. But it’s the only option we had to get a test done.”

Credit: Provided
A man provided a photo of a pop-up testing site where a worker wore a mask under her chin, exposing her nose and mouth.

One man provided Block Club with a photo of a worker at a testing pop-up wearing a mask under her chin, exposing her mouth and nose. The workers said they had headaches, the man said in a message, and a worker who wasn’t wearing a glove touched the man’s swab before providing it to him.

“I honestly felt like if I didn’t have COVID after going, I would have it upon leaving, which [in my opinion] is a major reason to avoid testing in the future,” he said.

Another man said he went into West Ridge pop-up that advertised free tests earlier this month. A worker there swabbed the man and then told him the tests would cost $20, the man said in an email. The vast majority of COVID-19 tests are supposed to be free or covered by insurance.

The man offered a credit card, but the worker said he could only pay with cash or through Zelle, an online payment platform. The man told the worker he only had $14 in cash — which the worker said was “fine” and took as payment, the man said.

A woman said she went to a Lakeview pop-up on Dec. 16 and got a call saying she’d tested positive — but later got an email saying she’d tested negative. She called the testing provider and was told they’d made an error and “everyone tested that day got texted the opposite results,” she said.

Others who spoke to Block Club agreed they don’t think the testing pop-ups are doing anything nefarious — many said the sites and workers simply seem overwhelmed.

Illinois has seen a significant uptick in testing, with more than 5 million done since Nov. 29, according to state data. But that testing is at the urging of officials as COVID-19 has soared, with cases, hospitalizations, deaths and positivity rates climbing quickly.

That’s left Chicagoans stuck between a rock and a hard place: If they can’t find an appointment at another testing provider, do they get tested at a pop-up they don’t always trust? Or do they get tested as a pop-up and hope to get a result in time to see their families for the holidays?

The confusion and the chaos is frustrating, especially as people try to follow officials’ testing advice and try to see loved ones safely during the holidays, many said.

Jacob Bennett, of Lakeview, stopped by a pop-up testing site last week after learning he’d been exposed to someone with COVID-19. He’d been to the same pop-up before and it’d seemed “fine-ish,” he said; but this time around, he noticed he was given a testing kit without instructions on how to collect his sample.

And after two days, Bennett still hadn’t received his results — not even from his rapid test. He tried to call but there were hour-plus waits every time he rang, with no option for providing a callback number, he said.

“It’s not useful if they don’t give you the results that were promised,” Bennett said. “High level, I don’t have any reason to think that the actual testing is problematic — but not getting a result defeats the entire purpose.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
A free pop up COVID-19 test in Chicago’s Hermosa neighborhood on Monday, November 30, 2020.

Reporting Testing Concerns

The Federal Trade Commission warned in April 2020 that “not every COVID-19 testing site is legit.” The agency recommended people who want to get tested contact a doctor or look at their local or state health departments’ websites to find testing sites.

Steve Bernas, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Chicago and northern Illinois, also suggested people contact their doctor or local health department to find a trusted testing site.

Chicago’s health department does not oversee or regulate testing operators, a spokesman said.

COVID-testing sites like the pop-ups are considered businesses and are not licensed by the Illinois Department of Public Health, spokesman Cristobal Martinez said in an email.

But the pop-ups partner with laboratories that are regulated by the state health department’s Clinical Lab Improvement Amendments and by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ Clinical Lab Improvement Amendments. Labs can be investigated by those agencies “for any deficiencies in any business they choose to partner with,” Martinez said.

People who have complaints about missing results, a testing site’s protocols or other concerns can call those agencies at 800-252-4343.

People who think there is fraud or other criminal activity should contact their local police and the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, Martinez said.

“For both complaint processes, it is important that patients have information on the partner laboratory, in addition to the testing site business,” Martinez said. “If a testing site does not share information on their partner laboratory, [the Illinois Department of Public Health] does not recommend patients utilize their services.”

How You Can Get Tested

The Chicago Department of Public Health recommends a variety of ways for people to get tested — but its website does not explicitly mention pop-up businesses. Instead, it suggests people use at-home tests, contact a health care provider or go to a community health center, a pharmacy or community-based testing sites.

The city has closed most of its own community-based testing sites as the pandemic has gone on; as of Wednesday, it lists two sites it co-operates: The RUSH Little Village site at 3960 W. 26th St. and Esperanza Brighton Park at 4700 S. California Ave.

The state has one community-based testing site at 6959 W. Forest Preserve Road on the Northwest Side, and it recommends U of I’s saliva tests provided by Northeastern Illinois University.

Otherwise, the state has a map of more than 100 places to get tested in Chicago — including health care providers and pharmacies — and the city recommends this map of health centers where people can get tested.

READ MORE: How Can You Get Tested For COVID-19 During The Holidays? Here’s What You Need To Know

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