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US Covid testing company with 300 pop-up sites across U.S. under state and federal investigation

03:51  15 january  2022
03:51  15 january  2022 Source:   nbcnews.com

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A company that operates more than 300 Covid-19 pop-up testing sites around the country is under investigation in multiple states and by a federal agency after drawing dozens of consumer complaints ranging from late test results to concerns that no tests were being conducted at all.

The Illinois-based Center for Covid Control was founded in Dec. 2020 by Aleya Siyaj, 29, whose previous experience includes starting an axe-throwing lounge and a donut shop, according to state business records and her LinkedIn page.

In recent weeks, the Oregon Department of Justice and the Illinois attorney general opened civil investigations into the firm. Massachusetts and Rhode Island have issued cease and desist letters to the company, and local regulators in Washington and California shut down several of its sites for operating without a license.

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An inspection by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid also shut down multiple sites operating without a license in Massachusetts.

“We take seriously any allegations of fraud or misbehavior by COVID-19 testing sites,” said Dr. Lee Fleisher, chief medical officer and director of the Center for Clinical Standards and Quality at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

“CMS is actively investigating numerous complaints about multiple laboratories and testing sites associated with this private company.”

The Center for Covid Control announced on Thursday that it has paused operations for a week and plans to reopen on Jan. 22.

In a statement posted to its website, the company said “due to our rapid growth and the unprecedented recent demand for testing, we haven’t been able to meet all our commitments.” It said it will use the pause “for additional staff training in sample collection and handling, a refocus on customer service and communication practices, and ensure compliance with regulatory guidelines.”

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The company noted its testing volume had recently increased tenfold, to 80,000 tests a day, and that a key factor in its “present customer service challenges” was the quick spread of Omicron among its 3,000 frontline staff members.

An internal memo, first obtained by USA Today, also cited “increased scrutiny by the media into the operations of our collection sites” over the past week, which, along with consumer complaints, “resulted in various state health departments and even [the Oregon] Department of Justice taking a keen interest in our company.”

In response to a request for comment by NBC News, a spokesperson for the center, Russ Keene, said the company is “in the midst of bringing on new talent and an ethics officer.”

After getting a test at one of the company’s Oregon sites in September, Kelly Fisher contacted the state’s attorney general, saying she was worried she had fallen “victim to a scam” as the site “felt very fishy” and wasn’t listed on the state’s page for Covid testing resources.

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She said they asked her to provide a picture of her driver’s license and insurance information and did not deliver results in the promised time frame. The state attorney general received 10 similar complaints against the company in this week alone.

"I trusted that any entity that was engaged in this operation was doing so in good faith," Fisher said in an interview with NBC News. "Since then, I’ve only gotten tested at my medical provider's office."

NM: People Line Up For Free COVID-19 Testing Amid Omicron Variant Surge (Sam Wasson / Sipa USA via AP) © Sam Wasson NM: People Line Up For Free COVID-19 Testing Amid Omicron Variant Surge (Sam Wasson / Sipa USA via AP)

The Center for Covid Control is one of many test companies that have drawn scrutiny from local and state agencies.

With demand for Covid-19 testing at unprecedented levels due to the spread of the Omicron variant, officials have warned of unlicensed and scam pop-up testing sites. Legislators and attorneys general in multiple states – including California, Illinois, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas – have said they will be investigating and introducing regulatory bills overseeing these operations.

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In New York alone, the attorney general has already logged 179 complaints and opened investigations into companies charging for testing, sent letters directing others to stop promising misleading result times and issued consumer guidance for how to spot scam testing sites.

The rise in unlicensed pop-up testing sites are the latest example of Covid-19 related fraud that regulators have struggled to combat throughout the pandemic. The Federal Trade Commission has received over 650,000 reports of Covid-related fraud, identity theft and other scams, which have cost Americans over $636 million.

Collecting samples

The Center for Covid Control grew to more than 300 sites and 3,000 staff in just over a year, according to its website. It describes itself as one of the largest national providers of Covid-19 testing and one of the first to offer walk-up testing.

Consumers have filed complaints against the company with attorneys general offices in at least three states. The Better Business Bureau, which has given the company an “F” rating, said that it has sent the company eight unanswered complaints.

The complaints made through BBB range from “not receiving test results to not receiving a refund after paying for the test,” spokesperson Sandra Guile said.

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The Center for Covid Control is run by Aleya Siyaj and her husband, Ali Syed, according to a person close to the company. The person described the center as “a marketing and management company that collects samples.”

“This is a young entrepreneurial husband and wife who has investors and partners,” the person said. “They identified a marketplace need and have capitalized on it.”

The center’s website states that it is “partnered with a CDC approved & licensed laboratory which is registered with the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA).”

That laboratory, called Doctors Clinical Laboratory, comes up in the CDC’s certified lab search at two addresses, one of which is the same Rolling Meadows, Illinois address listed for the Center for Covid Control’s business registration. The laboratory has been in operation since 2001, according to business records.

Calls placed on Thursday to the phone number listed on the Doctors Clinical Lab website went to an outgoing message that says, “Thank you for calling the Center for Covid Control.”

But a spokesperson for the Center for Covid Control said there is “no cross-ownership or coventry business affiliation between the two entities.”

A spokesperson for CMS, which oversees the laboratory certification process, said the agency is investigating Doctors Clinical Lab. It has “identified non-compliance and is waiting for a response from the laboratory to the deficiencies cited."

State and federal agencies have warned consumers about test providers not listed on government-run or affiliated websites, saying some some pop-up sites may steal personal information and money.

Consumers should be wary of sites that ask for too much personal information, such as social security and credit card numbers. They may provide no test result or a false negative result.

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