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Florida has no limit on price gouging COVID-19 tests

FL not under state of emergency to report price gouging
COVID test file.png
Posted at 9:56 AM, Jan 10, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-10 18:17:38-05

PALM HARBOR, Fla. — With hours-long wait times for COVID-19 tests continuing, at-home tests are nearly impossible to find. Now, as reports of price gouging are cropping up, the I-Team discovered a state decision contributing to what could be a free-for-all when it comes to pricing at-home tests.

The search for answers began when viewers contacted the I-Team with concerns that a local pharmacy was selling at-home COVID-19 tests for about $50 — double the going rate.

RELATED: Big changes to at-home COVID-19 testing expected this week

Inside Palm Harbor Pharmacy, the pulse of a team trying to keep up can be felt by anyone who enters — phones ringing, prescriptions filled, COVID-19 tests performed and booster shots given.

“This is the busiest that we’ve ever been. This surge and testing, this surge and positive cases, this surge and phone calls, nervous patients and parents,” owner and pharmacist Nicolette Mathey told the I-Team. “This is more than we ever saw in the original COVID, more than we saw in the delta wave, this omicron is the worst that we’ve seen, from our community perspective, as far as testing demand.”

Mathey said she likes solving problems.

“It’s almost like a puzzle.”

But this puzzle — putting together a clear picture of what people need to protect their families against the omicron variant — has missing pieces.

“There’s a lot of problems to be solved right now,” Mathey said.

One of the biggest is a shortage of at-home COVID-19 tests in stores and online.

LIST: Where can I get tested for COVID-19 in the Tampa Bay area?

The last week of December, Palm Harbor Pharmacy secured a limited supply of at-home tests. The price tag to customers was $49.95 for a box of two tests.

That’s when the I-Team began receiving snapshots of receipts from people upset that price was double was they paid days earlier at chain pharmacies, alleging price gouging.

“We had a very difficult decision to make for our community of Palm Harbor. Do we pay a premium for these tests and actually get them in stock for our community?” Mathey said. “We have to pay credit card fees, I have to pay staff to receive and sell these tests, we have to limit our own exposure to people who are sick and coming to get at-home tests, so we did decide to bring in a few cases, we paid a premium. Unfortunately, they were expensive.”

Under Florida law, price gouging can only be reported and enforced during a state of emergency. So really, there is nothing stopping the sale of at-home COVID-19 tests at any price.

Governor Ron DeSantis allowed the public health emergency to expire on June 26, 2021.

Emergency orders remain in place in 24 other states, including North Carolina.

In a news release on Wednesday, North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein asked residents to report pandemic-related price gouging by filing a complaint.

“Even as people continue to get vaccinated, we are still very much in this pandemic,” said Attorney General Josh Stein. “If you are shopping for COVID-19 tests or other pandemic-related goods and services in the coming weeks and see excessive prices, let my office know. I have already taken successful action against those who attempt to unlawfully take advantage of North Carolinians during this crisis, and I will not hesitate to in the future.”

RELATED: Walmart, Kroger raise at-home COVID test prices after agreement with White House expires

In September, Walmart, Kroger, and Amazon all agreed to sell the two-pack boxes of at-home tests for $14. That agreement expired in December.

“If we could, we would bring them in. No matter what I’m able to pay at this point, for at-home tests to bring them in, I can’t get them. It’s impossible at this moment,” Mathey said. “We’re on the phone multiple hours a day, multiple people in our procurement team, just trying to bring these things into our community.”

RELATED: Manatee County gave away 7,500 at-home COVID-19 testing kits before quickly running out

The I-Team asked the Palm Harbor Pharmacy owner what kind of pressure she feels.

“All kinds of pressure. I’m here ’til midnight many nights just trying to catch up and trying to help with the demand.”

That demand includes working to keep rapid antigen tests in stock and PCR tests, the most accurate on the market and needed for some international travel.

“Yesterday, for the first time, we ran out of our PCR tests. And we were supposed to receive more from the manufacturer and we didn’t. We were told that they all got shifted and allocated to the government. So now we’re being told we’re going to receive more on Tuesday, we’re hoping it’s true, but we have patients who have appointments booked for those tests, they need them to catch their international flights, to leave the country and fly internationally and I’m afraid they won’t be able to,” Mathey said.

CDC on COVID-19 Testing: What You Need to Know

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“Our team is exhausted. They’re working harder than they’ve ever worked, and they’re keeping a smile on their face and they’re doing the best they can for our community,” Mathey said.

RELATED: 600 Hillsborough teachers call out sick as COVID cases surge in Tampa Bay

As hours-long wait times for free COVID-19 tests at city and county sites continue, scammers may be exploiting the demand, using it as an opportunity to steal personal, financial or medical information.

Attorney General Ashley Moody recently issued a warning to Floridians to watch out for illegitimate pop-up testing sites designed to steal your info, private companies that require personal information to sign up for an at-home testing service, but will not guarantee an appointment time, and fake at-home COVID-19 tests.

To avoid becoming a victim, visit the attorney general’s website for a full list of what to look out for.

CONSUMER ALERT: Beware of COVID-19 Test Scams as Omicron Cases Increase Nationwide

If you suspect a COVID-19 test scam, report it to the AG’s office by calling 866-9NO-SCAM.