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S.F. Closes Fake COVID Testing Sites That Offered Cash

City officials have successfully shut down the lime-green tents that were advertising “Free COVID Testing” and were offering $5 cash to individuals in exchange for personal information and test samples.

San Francisco health and law enforcement officials have successfully convinced a rogue outdoor virus testing operator to halt operations within the city.

The illicit sites, identified by their signature lime-green tents and "Free COVID Testing" banners, reappeared in the Mission and SoMa neighborhoods earlier this year with operators offering cash to individuals in exchange for personal information and test samples.

San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu's office revealed that the operator, Gentech (unrelated to the biotechnology company Genentech), incentivized members of the public with $5 in cash for each test taken.

"Many of the testing tents operated near open-air drug markets, and the cash payments appeared to facilitate drug sales and activity," the office noted in a statement about the closures.

Following a multi-department enforcement effort over the past month to ensure compliance with a new health order, Chiu said Thursday that his office had engaged with legal representatives for Gentech, which subsequently agreed to cease activity in San Francisco.

"As we head into winter, ensuring the integrity of our virus testing operations is of the utmost importance," Chiu said in a statement. "At this time, almost four years into the pandemic, the public can rest assured that the vast majority of testing operators in San Francisco are legitimate and provide a much-needed public health service."

California Attorney General Rob Bonta last year warned that these street sites may fail to provide test results and could be a front to commit identity theft.

Earlier this year, the San Francisco Health Department issued a warning about several testing facilities operating without the required permits throughout the city. A Chronicle investigation revealed a lack of legally mandated lab licenses at these locations, licenses that would have indicated they were partnered with a lab using Food and Drug Administration-approved tests.

Gentech was able to operate its COVID-19, flu and RSV testing sites "for months" despite lacking accreditation, personal protective equipment and failing to meet sanitation requirements.

On Oct. 11, San Francisco Health Officer Dr. Susan Philip issued a health order establishing additional standards for sites collecting specimens for various viruses.

"Our goal is to protect and promote the health of all San Franciscans during this fall and winter when viruses may be circulating," Philip said in a statement. "That is why setting minimum infection control and safety standards for these testing sites not only ensures they operate in a responsible manner but also ensures confidence in the public health testing process by a trusted and verified source."

Mayor London Breed acknowledged the impact of these rogue testing sites on the city's drug crisis. Preliminary data from the medical examiner's office released Wednesday indicated that San Francisco is on track in 2023 to experience its deadliest year for accidental drug overdose deaths.

"Ensuring people have access to public health resources is critical, but we cannot let others use this as an opportunity to facilitate and worsen the drug crisis on our streets," Breed said in a statement commending Chiu's efforts. "This is part of the broader work we are doing to improve the conditions on our streets while providing safe, accessible services for our residents."

In a similar effort last year, the city attorney's office took action against coronavirus testing sites operated by Community Wellness America of Encinitas ( San Diego County). The company, associated with complaints in multiple states, operated sites near Golden Gate Park, Dolores Park and several other prominent locations in San Francisco.

The recent health order will make it easier for city officials to clamp down on such sites.

"The SFPD has been working closely with the Department of Public Health and City Attorney's Office to conduct strategic enforcement of these highly questionable COVID testing sites," San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott said in a statement.

"Our officers worked with the DPH to identify operators in violation of the city's health order before citing them and seizing their property. Since Gentech has ceased operations, less money is being funneled into the illicit drug markets, and the public has more right-of-way in our downtown corridor."

(c)2023 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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