By Jim Holt
Senior Investigative Reporter
County supervisors responding to the skyrocketing demand for COVID-19 testing want law enforcement and county business officials to come up with a plan that would stop identity thieves setting up fake COVID-19 test sites and stealing personal information.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to direct county lawyers and officials with the departments of Consumer & Business Affairs, Public Health and the Sheriff, to hammer out a plan over the next month that would crack down on fraudulent COVID-19 test sites and tests.
Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who introduced the motion, called the spike in demand for tests unprecedented.
“The harder it is to find a testing site, the more predators are going out and doing illegal activity with kids that are not even accredited and stealing identity of patients,” she told her fellow supervisors.
In the past month, demand for COVID-19 testing in Los Angeles County and across the country has skyrocketed, drastically outpacing supply, Barger said in her report to the board.
A rising number of COVID-19 cases, coupled with holiday events and travelers on the move, has created a “perfect storm” of people looking desperately for much-needed tests, she said.
According to Barger, this has prompted scammers to take advantage of the situation by distributing and setting up fraudulent COVID-19 tests and testing sites.
This last week, the Federal Trade Commission issued a warning on fake COVID-19 tests.
Barger cited the commission’s warning in her report as stating: “It’s not a surprise that, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, fake and unauthorized at-home testing kits are popping up online as opportunistic scammers take advantage of the spike in demand.”
It is imperative, she said, that the board ensure residents can be confident they are receiving an accurate and legitimate test without risking their private information.
To that end, the board wants county officials to report back in 30 days on:
• The risks of fraudulent COVID-19 test sites and home test kits.
• A public communications plan to educate residents on the threats of fake COVID-19 testing and test kits, how to identify fraudulent tests and testing sites, and where to find legitimate resources.
• An enforcement plan to crack down on fraudulent COVID-19 test sites and tests, and resources to combat and address identity theft.
The latest crime trend mirrors what supervisors witnessed last year with the emergence of fraudulent vaccines.
Before supervisors called for a response to the rise in stolen personal information, they received updates on the virus and its implications from Barbara Ferrer, the county’s public health director, and from health services Director Dr. Christina Ghaly.
“The steep rise in cases is striking,” said Ferrer, referring to data on hospitalizations and death compiled over the last six months.
“We’ve also experienced, as you can see, a significant increase in daily hospitalizations … with COVID-positive hospitalizations increasing by over 500%.”
Ferrer noted that, “for many,” infection with the Omicron variant of the virus resulted in mild or moderate illness.
The crush of people wanting COVID-19 tests, however, has challenged county resources.
“Staffing shortages are much more severe in this current surge and the shortages are due to several factors,” Ghaly told the board.
A higher number of doctors, nurses and other medical staff retiring, many retiring early, has depleted the number of hospital staffers — a trend Ghaly described as countywide and across the nation.
The push is on to hire nurses.
“We are expediting hiring,” she said. “We are working as quickly as possible to hire onboard nurses.”
At least 185 nurses are in various stages of the onboarding process, she said, noting an additional 50 nurses are expected to arrive in Los Angeles this coming week from out of state.