The state of Washington sued an Illinois-based coronavirus testing company on Tuesday alleging that the firm had faked test results, lied to customers and stored thousands of samples in garbage bags instead of properly refrigerating them.
The lawsuit against the Center for Covid Control, which is based in the Chicago suburbs and operates some 300 pop-up testing sites across the country, was filed in King County Superior Court.
The state's attorney general, Bob Ferguson, said the company contributed to the spread of Covid "when it provided false negative results."
“These sham testing centers threatened the health and safety of our communities. They must be held accountable,” he said in a statement.
The company, which operated 13 testing sites in Washington state, advertised that it could provide Covid test results "within 15 minutes for a rapid antigen test, and within 48 hours for a more accurate PCR test,” Ferguson said in a statement.
But the company, which only had a license for the site in Yakima and not for the 12 other sites, was aware it could not actually process tests at this rate at its “sham” sites, the court papers state.
“Former employees reported that the company was receiving between 8,000 to 10,000 tests per day, and data entry staff could not keep up,” Ferguson’s statement said. “The company’s owners refused requests to hire more staff to keep up with the demand for testing.”
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So employees stored tests in garbage bags and stashed them haphazardly in their offices “with no semblance of organization” and backdated them “so that stale samples would still be processed,” the lawsuit states.
The company's CEO Aleya Siyaj, and her husband, Akbar Syed, did not respond to requests for comment. Both are named as co-owners of the company and are listed as defendants in the lawsuit. The couples’ previous businesses included an ax-throwing lounge and a donut shop.
Ferguson also named an associated lab, Doctors Clinical Laboratory in Illinois, as a defendant in the lawsuit, and is seeking tens of thousands of dollars in damages from them. NBC News has reached out to Doctors Clinical Laboratory for comment on the lawsuit.
The Center for Covid Control, which has collected more than 400,000 samples nationwide, temporarily shut down in January amid cascading complaints about its business practices.
In a statement posted to its website, the company said that “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.”
The Washington lawsuit came more than two months after federal inspectors in November visited Center for Covid Control pop-up sites in Illinois, Maryland and Wisconsin, as well as its associated lab in the Chicago area.
Citing an 81-page Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) inspection document that was first obtained by Block Club Chicago, a nonprofit news organization, NBC News reported that inspectors found that staff members at pop-up sites who conducted rapid Covid tests did not use timers to track when to review results.
Inspectors also noted that on-site staff members “confirmed the laboratory did not follow the manufacturer’s package insert instructions.”
“It is important to note that pop-up testing locations are not currently regulated by a government agency,” a spokesperson for the Illinois attorney general said.
Employee files for 214 of 242 testing locations showed that the company “failed to provide training and competency evaluation” to perform antigen tests, according to the CMS inspection.
The inspection document also cast doubt on how specimens were labeled.
CMS inspectors noted that staffers failed to label specimens even though the instructions noted that technicians were supposed to take tubes and “write in permanent marker the date of birth, last name, and first name of the patient.” But inspectors noted that “51 out of 51 patient specimen tubes contained in the box [they examined] were blank.”
Inspectors also noted that Center for Covid Control sites lacked appropriate freezers to store the specimens and that staffers failed to document complaints from customers who called demanding their results.
When inspectors asked to see older lab records on Nov. 18, they were told that “due to an electrical surge all patient test and quality control data stored in the computers prior to Nov. 11, 2021, had been lost” and that there was “no backup procedure” to retain data.
In response, a Center for Covid Control spokesperson said in an emailed statement that “CMS audited DCL’s lab and DCL has responded to any issues raised” and that the company had hired legal counsel in Chicago “to undertake a comprehensive, organization-wide review to ensure full compliance with clinical, operational, HIPAA guidelines and best practices, addressing CMS observations.”
HIPAA is the federal law that protects the privacy of people’s medical records and other health information.
CMS is investigating two more Covid testing labs in Chicago, O’Hare Clinical Lab and Northshore Clinical Labs, a CMS spokesperson confirmed to NBC News. NBC News has reached out to O'Hare Clinical Lab and Northshore Clinical Labs for comment.
"Northshore Clinical Labs has terminated all third-party operation of COVID-19 testing pop-up sites, while we focus on improving processing and PCR result times during this period of extraordinarily high demand," said a statement on Northshore Clinical Labs website.