COVID-19 Testing Chain Opened Pop-Ups Across The US. Now, It's Temporarily Closing Amid Federal Investigation And Mounting Complaints - Market News
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COVID-19 Testing Chain Opened Pop-Ups Across The US. Now, It’s Temporarily Closing Amid Federal Investigation And Mounting Complaints

Block Club Chicago

CHICAGO — The Center for COVID Control, a locally based chain of testing sites, is under national scrutiny and has been cited at the highest level by a federal agency as reports come in from across the country of chaos at testing sites and confusion over results.

Amid the heightened scrutiny, the center announced Thursday it will close for a week starting Friday.

“Center for COVID Control is committed to serving our patients in the safest, most accurate and most compliant manner,” CEO Aleya Siyaj said in a news release. “Regrettably, due to our rapid growth and the unprecedented recent demand for testing, we haven’t been able to meet all our commitments.

“We’ve made this difficult decision to temporarily pause all operations, until we are confident that all collection sites are meeting our high standards for quality.”

Aleya Siyaj is listed as the CEO of the Center for COVID Control.

Again and again, people going to Center for COVID Control sites have reported getting negatives there — only to get a positive elsewhere. Others have never gotten results, or gotten them so late the test was effectively useless. Some people who didn’t even test at the sites were still sent results.

While that confusion has unfolded, Akbar Syed, Siyaj’s husband, who represents himself as a leader of the company, has posted on social media about buying luxury sports cars thanks to “covid money.”

The testing sites are effectively unregulated by the government in Illinois and in many other places, creating concern among residents.

The federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which oversees the company’s go-to lab, has found “non-compliance” and “deficiencies” at the lab, according to a spokesperson. A December survey from the agency cited the lab for “immediate jeopardy,” the most serious infraction, noting it had made mistakes that led to tens of thousands of PCR tests being unable to be processed and workers weren’t following proper procedures for rapid tests, among other concerns.

The Illinois Department of Public Health is also investigating complaints at the chain’s lab, a spokesperson said.

Attorney general’s offices in multiple states told Block Club they’ve received complaints about the chain.

And the Better Business Bureau, a non-government entity that tracks consumer complaints about businesses, has given the Center for COVID Control an “F” rating and is investigating complaints about the chain.

Multiple customers told Block Club they tried to call the company with questions and concerns — only to face customer service lines that were hours long with more than 100 people, and no answer once you got to the front of the line.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Center for COVID Control’s rapid and PCR testing site, 3619 N. Broadway, in Lakeview on Dec. 29, 2021.

The Center for COVID Control’s staff has tried to be compliant with the law and health care guidelines, said former employees. But the chain uses a model of paying testing sites for each test they send in for processing — which could raise questions about complying with federal laws meant to protect consumers and taxpayer money, an expert said.

Despite the complaints, the chain has exploded in recent months, opening sites across the country. Its website boasts of 300 locations.

The company will take its week of closure to provide staff training, “refocus” on customer service and communication and ensure it’s complying with regulatory guidelines, according to its news release.

Representatives for Center for COVID Control did not respond to requests for comment.

But dozens of people from across the United States spoke to Block Club about their experiences with the business, many saying they don’t want to return — but don’t know where else they can turn to for testing.

‘So I Opened Up A COVID Testing Site’

The Center for COVID Control is a management company to Doctors Clinical Laboratory. It provides tests and testing supplies, software, personal protective equipment and marketing services — online and printed — to testing sites, said a person who was formerly associated with the Center for COVID Control. Some of the sites are owned independently but operate in partnership with the chain under its name and with its guidance.

Doctors Clinical Lab is the lab that processes many of the chain’s tests and sends the results to patients.

The business and the lab are run by Siyaj and Syed, a suburban couple who, before focusing on COVID-19 testing in 2021, ran axe-throwing lounges. Syed also created wedding videos.

Doctors Clinical Lab is registered under another person’s name in state records, but federal documents and multiple former employees and business partners said Siyaj and Syed run the lab and Center for COVID Control.

Siyaj and Syed did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Siyaj lists herself as the CEO of the Center for COVID Control on LinkedIn, and Syed referred to himself as the “founding father” of the business on his Facebook until recently. He also posted videos trying to recruit people to the business on Facebook. He appeared to remove that title and videos after being contacted by reporters.

Syed has also made multiple references to the business on his TikTok, saying he’s been able to buy multiple luxury sports cars due to his work with COVID-19 testing, and writing that he owns dozens of testing sites and a lab.

In a post where Syed is shown bidding $400,000 for a Lamborghini at a car auction, someone asked him what he does for a living.

“My axe throwing lounges were forced shut by the gov due to covid,” Syed wrote on Aug. 17. “So I opened up a covid testing site than bought the lab and now i have 65 sites.”

In an Aug. 29 video where Syed talking about buying a Countach, a luxury sports car, someone asked, “Oil money?” Syed replied, “Not even sure what means.. but no covid money.”

In another of Syed’s post, someone asked Syed how could afford “all those cars.” “Covid testing,” Syed replied. “Rapid and pcr both.”

And in an exchange Dec. 20-21, someone criticized Syed’s business because they’d “been waiting for 2 weeks” for PCR results, he wrote.

“Give us another shot,” Syed wrote. “We are ready for the surge now.”

Syed appeared to take down his TikTok after being contacted by reporters.

Akbar Syed’s comments on TikTok.

The lab’s address is in a small strip mall in Rolling Meadows in a storefront that, as recently as fall 2018, was a Weber Grill restaurant. Just a few steps away is the address for the Center for COVID Control, in a storefront that was once an HVAC shop.

Siyaj registered the Center for COVID Control with the state in in December 2020.

Since then, the company’s growth has exploded.

The Center for COVID Control only had a “handful of sites” in the spring, said a person previously associated with the chain.

Over the past few months, the company has grown to having hundreds of sites under its umbrella. Some are independent. Siyaj wrote on TikTok that he owns some, as well.

As the chain grew, it began to experience more issues with not getting people PCR test results on time and not being able to handle the number of customers calling in with questions and concerns, said the person formerly associated with the Center for COVID Control.

The Center for COVID Control has struggled to keep up with demand for testing as COVID-19 cases have surged, and as staffers have themselves gotten sick, according to the company’s news release.

It used to turn around PCR results in three to four days, but that started slowing down in November, the person said; more recently, it’s taken as long as 10 days.

“I think they kind of grew very fast, faster than they could handle the tests processing,” the person said.

Syed threatened some testing site owners who did want to leave the Center for COVID Control umbrella, suggesting he’d do things to take over their sites, the person said.

But, in general, the company’s owners were good to people they worked with and everyone tried to comply with regulations, former employees said.

The Center for COVID Control “was founded to meet a critical market need to establish testing centers where COVID tests could be provided to patients rapidly and safely to minimize delay, and let people get on with their daily activities,” Siyaj said in the company’s news release.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
A person walks up to get tested at Center for COVID Control’s rapid and PCR testing site, 2670 N. Lincoln Ave., in Lincoln Park on Dec. 29, 2021.

‘Not Getting A Result Defeats The Entire Purpose’

People going to Center for COVID Control sites throughout the United States have raised questions about numerous issues: dirty sites, long lines, crowded rooms, workers not wearing masks or gloves, workers trying to charge for tests that should be free or telling people to put down that they don’t have insurance when they do, among other problems.

But chief among many people’s concerns has been actually getting their results and ensuring they are accurate.

Center for COVID Control sites test thousands of people per day, and many have gotten results as expected. But Block Club spoke to people who have been tested at various sites and said they never got results, experienced long wait times — sometimes weeks — before getting results or got back results that didn’t make sense to them.

Robert McNees, of Rogers Park, stopped by a Center For COVID Control site with his family Dec. 22. But the facility was crowded and “chaotic,” and the family wasn’t given instructions for doing the tests, McNees previously said. They opted not to take the tests or turn them in — but about five hours later, every member of the family was emailed a negative result from the company, he said.

Kristen Wylie, of Kalamazoo, Michigan, said she and her partner tested five times over a two-week period at one of the chain’s sites in her area. Her partner tested positive through a rapid test at the site on Dec. 20, but they both got negatives when they tested at the site in the days after that. They then got a PCR test at an unrelated pharmacy and both came back positive.

Trevin Cox, of Logan Square, and his partner stopped by a Center for COVID Control testing site Dec. 23 after being exposed. The site’s rapid test gave him a negative result, as did a rapid and PCR result at a pop-up under another chain. But Cox lost his sense of smell, had a fever and had other symptoms. An at-home test came back positive.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
A person waits outside to get tested at Center for COVID Control’s rapid and PCR testing site, 3619 N. Broadway, in Lakeview on Dec. 29, 2021.

Jacob Bennett, of Lakeview, was tested Dec. 21 and still hasn’t received his rapid test results.

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

A Denver woman, who asked that her name not be used, took rapid and PCR tests Oct. 18 at a Center for COVID Control site in Colorado; her rapid result was positive. But her company required a PCR result, which the site hadn’t sent her. She called in, waiting about an hour and a half to speak to someone with the Center for COVID Control — and the worker she eventually reached told her, essentially, “We don’t know,” she said.

About a week after taking the test, the woman got her result emailed to her — and the PCR results said she was negative, she said. A PCR test she took at a state-run facility showed she was positive.

“Out of the three [tests] I took that week, theirs was the only one I was told ‘negative’ — and the one I waited the longest for,” she said. At another point, she said, “Which is scary because if you get that negative test and you haven’t received others, you’re probably going back out into the population like everything is OK.

“While that negative didn’t mean a whole lot to me, I was angry for the sake of others who may have been getting it and therefore spreading it. … You’re a huge role in people knowing that they’re positive and not spreading it. So if you’re giving out wrong results or fake results … that’s a huge issue.”

Have you been tested at a COVID-19 pop-up? Click here to tell Block Club about your experience.

Multiple people said they tried to call the company’s customer service line, only to be informed by a prerecorded voice there were more than 100 people in line in front of them. Many gave up; others who waited said they got to the front of the line only to be hung up on or directed to voicemail. A Block Club reporter who called also was told there were more than 100 people in the call queue.

Some said they were able to get ahold of someone at the company, and they were then sent a result via email or text.

The company has faced “customer service challenges” as the Omicron variant has driven up cases, including among the company’s “3,000 frontline staff members at an extreme rate,” according to a news release.

“For this, we truly apologize and are committed to resolve these recent customer inconveniences and loss of confidence,” Siyaj said in the news release.

Credit: Kelly Bauer/Block Club Chicago
Empty boxes of rapid antigen tests littered the lot near a Center for COVID Control site. The chain has relied on the rapid tests even as studies have shown they are less sensitive than PCR tests.

The chain has also leaned heavily on rapid nasal swab tests, even as studies have shown rapid antigen tests are less sensitive than PCR tests, producing more false negatives when someone has the virus.

On Sunday, a Lincoln Park site under the Center for COVID Control banner had dozens of empty boxes of rapid tests littering the lot behind and beside it. Some were stuffed into ripped garbage bags tossed on the ground, while others littered the snowy grass and pavement.

Though many of the Center for COVID Control’s sites and its website still prominently advertise PCR tests, and Chicagoans have gone to the sites looking to get PCR tests, Syed has told testing site owners the company is no longer offering such tests because its lab can’t handle it.

“About three weeks ago, we decided we were gonna stop PCR testing because of just the overwhelming amount of tests that were coming in,” Syed said in a video he posted Jan. 6 to the YouTube page for his wedding video business. The video was removed after reporters asked about it.

At that point, the chain was doing about 10,000 tests per day, and the majority of the company’s money was coming from PCR tests, Syed said in the video. As of Jan. 6, when he posted the video, the company was doing 90,000 tests per day, he said.

It’d be an “absolute nightmare” to bring back PCR tests under those conditions, so the Center for COVID Control won’t bring them back, Syed said in the video.

“No lab in the country can come anywhere near doing 100,000 tests a day, which is what we would need them to do,” he said. “Therefore, we cannot go back to having PCR back.”

But multiple people who spoke to Block Club said they went to the sites in recent weeks and had swabs taken while thinking they were getting PCR tests.

A Block Club reporter went to one of the chain’s sites in Wicker Park on Sunday afternoon and requested one PCR and one rapid test; about two hours later, Doctors Clinical Lab sent her results for two rapid tests. The next day, Doctors Clinical Lab also sent her a PCR result.

Staff members at a site in Avondale told people coming in they could only get rapid tests since there was a national test shortage — but they only said that when asked about PCRs, and its Center for COVID Control banners still advertised PCR tests.

Credit: Kelly Bauer/Block Club Chicago
Empty boxes of rapid antigen tests littered the lot near a Center for COVID Control site. The chain has relied on the rapid tests even as studies have shown they are less sensitive than PCR tests.

Another concern for many: People who were emailed a negative test result were provided with a PDF that contained a QR code. Scanning the QR code took the viewer to a Doctors Clinical Lab website that tells anyone who looks at it they are negative — even people who never tested at a Center for COVID Control site.

The website was not coded in a way where its result would change, and it was not customized to show the results of individual patients. The only element that would change on the website was its timestamp. It was publicly available to all.

The website also contained a QR code that, if scanned, would take the viewer to a Google search of the word “negative.”

“That’s shocking. What the heck?” Wylie said after learning about the QR code. “Is this a scam? I’m shocked.”

The website was updated after reporters contacted the Center for COVID Control and Doctors Clinical Lab. It now says it cannot show the results of an individual due to HIPPA laws.

People who were sent a positive test result were also sent a QR code; that one went to the Google search for “positive.”

Doctors Clinical Lab had a website that anyone, including people who had not been tested or people who might be positive, could access to see a negative COVID-19 test result.

Investigations

The Center for COVID Control and its partner lab, Doctors Clinical Lab, are facing several investigations among federal and state authorities.

The company is “responding to queries” from health and regulatory agencies, and it will take its week of closure to ensure it’s complying with regulatory guidelines, according to a news release.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which regulate and certify labs, have cited the Rolling Meadows-based lab for “immediate jeopardy”-level deficiencies — the highest level — in three areas: general laboratory systems, analytic systems and laboratories performing high complexity testing.

The deficiencies were found in various labs, including the main laboratory, on various days in November and December. The report was issued Dec. 8.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services “has a record of complaint surveys being performed at Doctors Clinical Laboratory,” an agency spokesperson said. The agency “identified non-compliance and is waiting for a response from the laboratory to the deficiencies cited.”

Inspectors found Doctors Clinical Lab could not process or store PCR test samples appropriately — while it was being inundated with tests. Over an 11-day period in November, the lab received 84,436 PCR test samples; over that period, it processed and reported 43,240 test results, according to the report.

The lab didn’t have enough personnel to “accurately” perform the PCR tests within 72 hours of them being collected, and it did not have the freezers it needed to store them, “which resulted in the inability to test 41,196 patient test samples,” according to the report.

The lab also didn’t do quality control test runs on a machine used to analyze PCR tests in 25 days of patient testing that were reviewed by inspectors, according to the report. And training documentation for three of 11 testing personnel found they hadn’t received documented training for using the machine prior to doing testing, according to the report.

Workers at testing sites also failed to follow proper guidelines for performing a variety of COVID-19 rapid tests, including multiple instances of trying to get results from tests before enough time had passed and providing incorrect directions to customers who were self-administering tests, according to the federal agency’s report.

Not following the different procedures for COVID-19 tests can lead to the results being incorrect.

Multiple people who spoke to Block Club said they didn’t receive directions at all when testing at Center for COVID Control sites, and they questioned if their results were accurate since they didn’t know how to correctly swab their noses.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

In another instance, a worker at an offshoot lab in Wisconsin working under Doctors Clinical Lab’s license told inspectors that lab had started testing on Sept. 11 — but didn’t report results to local, state or federal authorities until Sept. 29, according to the report. The worker said he did not know results had to be reported, according to the report.

That same lab did not report negative or positive results “for 50 out of 99 results” on Nov. 3 and “93 out of 110 results” Nov. 4, according to the report.

And the company has failed at maintaining the confidentiality of patient information, failed at accurately identifying patient samples that were sent in for PCR tests and failed at documenting complaints and problems reported to the lab, according to the report.

For example, employees of the Center for COVID Control could access the lab’s patient test information without needing to get written authorization, according to the report.

Inspectors also found multiple instances where tubes with people’s samples in them weren’t labeled with identifying information, and tubes went missing; in some instances, the lab couldn’t link a result to a patient.

In a case on Nov. 17, inspectors saw a box was shipped to the Center for COVID Control and opened by “data entry/processing” staff; it had 51 PCR test samples that had been collected in Bloomington, but the tubes were not labeled with people’s information and the box did not have refrigerated packs to maintain the temperature needed for the samples, according to the report.

And employees files from 214 out of 242 lab testing locations showed the lab hadn’t properly trained staff on a variety of rapid tests, according to the agency.

A person formerly associated with the Center for COVID Control said the company did provide training material in the form of videos and instructional material to testing site workers.

In instances where people called to complain, workers would pick up the phone and identify themselves as working for the Center for COVID Control, and wouldn’t always log the complaints, according to the report. The workers were given pre-written emails they could send to people with complaints; one said the lab was “experiencing some technical difficulties with some new equipment,” which had led to delays, according to the report. It was signed by Doctors Clinical Laboratory.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
A person walks up to get tested at Center for COVID Control’s rapid and PCR testing site, 2670 N. Lincoln Ave., in Lincoln Park on Dec. 29, 2021.

The Center for COVID Control and Doctors Clinical Lab have also faced scrutiny from other agencies.

Multiple state attorney general’s offices told Block Club they have received complaints about Center for COVID Control sites, with people reporting being worried they’d given personal information to a business they now doubted.

A spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Public Health said the agency is investigating complaints against the lab.

“We’re still working through the process with Doctors Clinical Lab,” a spokesperson said.

The Better Business Bureau, a non-government agency, is also looking into complaints about the business, said Steve Bernas, president of the agency’s Chicago division. The organization has given the Center for COVID Control an “F” rating, its lowest.

The organization has seen 11 complaints about the business filed since Dec. 20, Bernas said. The complaints have alleged they didn’t get test results, the test results were inconclusive or they paid for expedited testing results, but did not get results in the time that was promised, Bernas said.

There have been “customer service issues related to all the complaints,” with customers having difficulties reaching the company to get a “resolution,” Bernas said.

After Block Club reported on issues with a variety of pop-up testing sites, Gov. JB Pritzker called for the Illinois Attorney General’s Office to investigate and vowed to shut down “fly-by-night” businesses. He did not directly name the Center for COVID Control.

The Illinois Attorney General’s Office’s on Wednesday issued guidance warning residents to be cautious around pop-ups, though it did not single out the Center for COVID Control.

‘Worth A Heightened Level Of Scrutiny’

Doctors Clinical Lab, the lab Center for COVID Control uses to process tests, makes money by billing patients’ insurance companies or seeking reimbursement from the federal government for testing. Insurance statements reviewed by Block Club show the lab has, in multiple instances, billed insurance companies $325 for a PCR test, $50 for a rapid test, $50 for collecting a person’s sample and $80 for a “supplemental fee.”

In turn, the testing sites are paid for providing samples to the lab to be processed, said a person formerly associated with the Center for COVID Control.

In a January video talking to testing site operators, Syed said the Center for COVID Control will no longer provide them with PCR tests, but it will continue supplying them with rapid tests at a cost of $5 per test. The companies will keep making money for the rapid tests they collect, he said.

“You guys will continue making the $28.50 you’re making for the rapid test,” Syed said in the video.

Akbar Syed and Aleya Siyaj in a video posted to Syed’s YouTube account on Jan. 6.

Any time there is money flowing between a provider to any kind of patient, it raises concerns about the United States’ anti-kickback statute, said Jeb White, CEO of Taxpayers Against Fraud, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting fraud.

The statute prohibits organizations from receiving money in exchange for things like referring patients or patronage to a lab.

“At the very least, it is worth a heightened level of scrutiny to see if there is any quid pro quo playing out here,” White said.

The person who was formally associated with the Center for COVID Control said testing site owners were paid per test they provided to the lab to be processed, but the payment was called a “collection fee.” He was told the payments were based on a government-set rate per test, he said.

Customers have also reported being told to not put down their insurance information even if they have insurance. In those cases, the federal government likely ends up paying for those tests.

If workers are telling people not to put down insurance information, those charges are being passed to the government “needlessly” and creating a “harm” to the government, White said.

A former employee of the Center for COVID Control said that isn’t happening at sites. He said billing insurance rather than the government is more profitable.

But the person who used to associate with the Center for COVID Control said he knows of staff at a testing site who did tell people to not put down their insurance information. It was because they had been misinformed and were told the tests were state-sponsored, so insurance information wasn’t needed, he said.

He said he does not remember who gave them that misinformation, but testing site workers started asking for insurance details once they had the right information.

“Once people learned that it’s not the way, most of them, at least in our case, we always tell our customers, ‘If you have insurance, you can use it,’” he said.

Staff at other sites might be doing it because there is a “misunderstanding,” he said.

A suburban man who went to a Center for COVID Control site Dec. 24 said he heard the site’s workers telling people to put down that they don’t have insurance information on forms. As a result, he did not put down his family’s insurance information, even though they have it, he said.

Just getting in and out of the crowded facility was his priority, he said.

“If there’s a place I’m gonna get COVID, it’s probably in this testing center with 30 other people in a small, enclosed area,” he said.

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