Community

Weeks into the pandemic, COVID-19 testing is still only available to a small portion of the population, including those with the most severe symptoms. That leaves those who suspect they have the disease but aren’t sick enough to be hospitalized with few choices to be tested.

That might lead some people to try to get a test however they can, even if the source is not clear.

In Louisville, that became a concern last week when drive-thru coronavirus testing sites briefly popped up around town. The companies running them are now under investigation by state and federal authorities.

Officials from law enforcement and government have urged Kentuckians to be cautious and avoid testing sites that aren’t affiliated with reputable institutions in response to the pop-up drive-thru sites.

“I don’t think they’re valid, based on what I saw. They don’t look valid,” Gov. Andy Beshear said in his daily briefing Thursday. “They might have some contract with someone, and they might just have a couple supplies but make sure if you’re getting tested, it’s connected to a healthcare facility, the state, a university, a reputable partner.”

Reports and social media posts indicate at least two groups presenting themselves as marketing companies accepted cash payments of more than $200 and collected insurance information from some in Louisville early this week. In some cases, community members confronted and told them to shut down.

Ed Beighley of BCK Marketing, based in Colorado, ran the site at Sojourn Church Midtown, with the church’s permission. He said his company was contacted and hired by two California-based labs to administer coronavirus tests in Kentucky using doctors licensed here. According to Beighley, the doctors evaluated patients and wrote prescriptions remotely. He said his sister, a registered nurse from Tulsa, performed the swabs on nearly four dozen patients, and that he sent the samples to the labs each evening.

The labs did not respond to phone calls and emails requesting comment. Beighley declined to share the names of the doctors, or of the people who hired his firm. Following media reports of improper testing, Beighley spoke with the FBI, he said.

“I definitely wasn’t doing anything wrong,” he told WFPL News on Wednesday.

Beighley said his group was not connected with another — Community Outreach Marketing Group from Chicago — that was operating in Louisville this week. Calls and emails to that company’s CEO, Kamau Mason, were not returned.

Jack Brannan, a spokesman for the Sojourn Collective, said in a text the church asked BCK not to return after two days of testing following concerns that the group was not “in compliance with city and state requirements.” He declined to answer follow-up questions.

Mayor Greg Fischer has said people should not be paying $200 for tests. On Monday, a new public health order required that testing providers who aren’t affiliated with health institutions or who don’t have the health department’s approval must have written permission from the department before they begin administering tests in Louisville.

Last week, a spokeswoman for Fischer did not provide information in response to questions about what process test providers need to go through before setting up in order to be in compliance. A different spokeswoman, Jean Porter, said those performing testing are required to provide updates to Louisville Metro Public Health & Wellness.

The order said the health department “fears that unapproved entities may prey on desperate individuals who have been exposed to the virus with the false premise of a COVID-19 test results (sic).”

Approved testing sites will need to follow health department and CDC guidelines and submit to inspections. The order also allows the health department to shut down those that operate without authorization or are non-compliant.

After the sites shut down, a spokeswoman for Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, Elizabeth Kuhn, said in a statement that he was aware of the sites and would have sought their closure if they had re-opened.

“The Attorney General will be serving civil investigative demands on those responsible for the sites, and our Medicaid Fraud division will be watching for any fraudulent billings over the coming weeks and months,” she said.

How To Protect Yourself

There are some reputable drive-thru testing sites in the Louisville area taking limited patients, including at the University of Louisville and in Floyd County, Ind.

Special Agent in Charge Robert Brown of the FBI, who’s based in Louisville, said that kind of affiliation is one thing to look for when considering a drive-thru site. He said it’s important to properly research a testing site before going there.

“I would tell people go to your normal medical routes, go to your doctor, go to a minute clinic, go to the hospital before you go to some fly-by-night clinic,” he told WFPL News in an interview. “In a chaotic environment, you know, there’s going to be questions whether or not someone or something is legitimate or not.”

In the case of the Louisville pop-up sites, Brown said there were several red flags. The sites were only open for a limited time, which didn’t make sense for a pandemic of this scale; the testers were allegedly accepting cash or taking pictures of people’s Medicaid cards; they were wearing makeshift protective gear; they weren’t affiliated with hospitals or health departments; and, when confronted, they packed up and left.

“Those are all indications of fraud,” he said.

Brown did not say the groups in Louisville were definitely committing crimes, but he said bad actors could use this type of setup to engage in an array of offenses, including Medicaid fraud, identity theft and money laundering. And it’s possible the people on the ground in Louisville were acting in good faith, while those who hired them weren’t, he said.

This is no different than other disaster situations — for example, Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy — in terms of some people trying to take advantage, he said.

People also need to look out for threats that may not happen in person, Brown said. That could be a robocall offering masks or respirators that aren’t real, or COVID-19 apps that install malware on a device.

In any of these cases, Brown said people should report their concerns. Complaints can be filed to the FBI on the Internet Crime Complaint Center website or by calling 1-800-CALL-FBI (225-5324). To submit complaints to the Attorney General of Kentucky, complete this form online or call 1-888-432-9257.

This post has been updated.

Amina Elahi is WFPL's City Reporter.