CHICAGO — The Center for COVID Control expanded so rapidly that it became unable to keep up with the thousands of tests sent its way — leading to workers leaving tests in garbage bags, unrefrigerated, around the office and lying to customers about their results, former employees said.
The company, a suburban Chicago-based chain that boasts 300 locations nationally, has been paid more than $124 million for testing from the federal government since the start of the pandemic. It is now facing a lawsuit from the Minnesota attorney general’s office and is under investigation by various federal and state agencies. It has closed all its locations until Friday amid the scrutiny.
The lawsuit from Minnesota alleges the company faked test results, sent badly delayed results or never provided them at all to many people.
Former employees of the chain told Block Club they had concerns as soon as they started working there — and the company’s issues worsened as the owners expanded when the lab already couldn’t keep up with tests. Tests were kept in unrefrigerated bags, workers were told to lie to people calling in for results and tests were billed to the government even when people had insurance, among other issues, former employees said.
Last week, the company announced it will temporarily close to focus on training staff and complying with regulatory guidelines. Company leaders said the Omicron variant — which has driven up cases and, thus, testing, around the nation in recent weeks — had made its work more challenging.
A spokesperson denied employees’ allegations.
“Center for COVID Control has acknowledged operational strains and customer service challenges largely beginning in late 2021 during the Omicron variant surge,” spokesperson Russ Keene said in an emailed statement Wednesday. “To address those emerging concerns company leaders voluntarily called for a seven-day national pause of local collection site operations to reset all operational aspects of the company and ensure accurate testing services continue to be made available to patients across the country.
“Of the issues cited by former employees, [the Center for COVID Control] issues no such policy directives to employees and finds these practices unacceptable, of course.”
But former employees said the company struggled to keep up with tests and had issues for months before Omicron was first detected Nov. 26 in the United States.
Christine Morales said she left job with the company in early December, concerned about the number of people calling to complain and inspectors showing up at the office.
“I was just kind of scared that within the next 30 days I wouldn’t have a job anymore because they were gonna get shut down — and rightfully so,” Morales said. “They should have been shut down.”
Tests Kept In Bags Stacked Around The Office
CEO Aleya Siyaj registered the Center for COVID Control with the state in December 2020. Her husband, Akbar Syed, referred to himself as the “founding father” of the business on Facebook until recently, and has posted about the company on social media.
The Center for COVID Control only had a few sites in the spring, and it was able to get results to customers within a few days, former employees said.
But in the past few months, the company has grown to having hundreds of sites under its umbrella. The sites — some of which are independently owned, and some of which Syed has said he owns — promised free COVID-19 tests, with workers collecting PCR and rapid test samples from people who came in.
The PCR samples were sent to be tested at the Center for COVID Control’s lab, named Doctors Clinical Lab. The company headquarters and lab were in the same northwest suburban Rolling Meadows strip of offices.
Morales started working at the Center for COVID Control in early July. Her interview consisted of a five-minute phone conversation; at the end, the supervisor asked her to start that night, and Morales said she could the next day, she said.
When Morales went to the company’s Rolling Meadows headquarters, there wasn’t security, the supervisor didn’t know she was supposed to start and she was given five to 10 minutes of training, she said. Her main responsibility was taking test tubes with people’s specimens, entering the person’s information into a computer and printing a label.
Morales wasn’t asked to do training for or sign an agreement about HIPAA or patient confidentiality, which surprised her, she said. She thinks the company did not conduct a background check on her.
About three weeks later, Morales was promoted to a supervisor position.
From the beginning, Morales was concerned about the Center for COVID Control: The company didn’t require workers at the office to wear a mask or gloves, people wore pajamas to work and there weren’t proper bags for biohazard waste — it was put in trash bags and thrown out with normal garbage, she said.
Workers and supervisors communicated through WhatsApp, sharing photos of customers’ personal information — including names, birthdates, photos of driver’s licenses, addresses and contact information — on the app, which automatically downloaded the images to workers’ phones, Morales said.
Test specimens were taken from sites by drivers to the Rolling Meadows office or were shipped there to be logged and tested, but they were kept in boxes or bags that didn’t have icepacks, Morales said.
Another former employee, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation, confirmed Morales’ account. The two have spoken to investigators from the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office and other agencies.
The former employee said she received only a few minutes of training, was told to lie to customers and saw behavior she thought was unprofessional — like managers vaping in the office and around the lab — while working at the Rolling Meadows office.
The other former employee left the company after getting sick with COVID-19 in December. Someone dropping off tests at the office said he’d tested positive for the virus, but he didn’t wear a mask while being in the company’s office. She said she thinks she caught the virus while being near him.
“I’ve heard so many horror stories from consumers on the phone about how [the Center for COVID Control’s inaccurate, late or nonexistent results caused them a lot of problems,” the former employee wrote in an affidavit for the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office. “I do not think that [the Center for COVID Control] should be allowed to continue operating.”
Tests Kept In Bags Stacked Around The Office
Morales and the other former employees’ worries grew as the company expanded and started receiving more tests than it would process on a given day.
When unprocessed tests came in from the company’s sites, many were kept in black or white trash bags, not refrigerated, that would pile up around the office, Morales and the other former employee said. Eventually, the company got biohazard bags and kept tests in those — but many were still left unrefrigerated for days at a time, the two said.
Toward the end of Morales’ time at the company in early December, “they were starting to stack up pretty bad. … You couldn’t even walk. Bags everywhere,” Morales said. “They were at least five or six days behind on their tests, processing the tests.”
Morales and the other former employee said they worried the tests were kept unrefrigerated for so long that their samples died and, when tested, provided false negatives for many people.
The company ordered two refrigerators in September but, after they arrived, they were left unused in a warehouse for several weeks before they were brought into the office, Morales and the other former employee said. Once the fridges were installed, some tests were put in them — but they couldn’t house all the tests, so tests continued to be kept in unrefrigerated bags around the office, the two said.
A newly installed refrigerator “only held a couple hundred bags of samples, which meant that most samples were typically not able to be refrigerated,” the former employee wrote in an affidavit. “We were instructed … to keep the extra bags of samples that could not fit in the refrigerator, on the floor and on the counter, or wherever we could find a spot for them.”
Around Dec. 10, the employee was going through unrefrigerated samples when she saw some had been collected Nov. 28 and 29, she wrote in the affidavit. She had been told samples left out unrefrigerated for so long were “dead” and could not deliver accurate test results, so she asked a manager what to do, she wrote.
The manager “told me that I should enter the data and send the dead samples to the lab for testing anyways,” the former employee wrote. “She said that I should change the collection date on the samples to a more recent date so that it appeared like the samples could still deliver an accurate result.”
A federal report from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, which oversees Doctors Clinical Laboratory, says PCR tests can be stored at 2-8 degrees Celsius (35.6-46.4 degrees Fahrenheit) for up to 72 hours; if there’s a delay in testing, they should be stored at 70 degrees below zero Celsius (94 degrees below zero Fahrenheit). The report says the lab did not have freezers to properly store tests.
The report notes several instances in November where health department inspectors found bags with tests inside two fridges at the Rolling Meadows lab.
On Nov. 17, an inspector saw a fridge with about 20 “large biohazard bags” full of tests that had been received Nov. 16-17, and another fridge contained more specimens and bags, according to the report. The inspector asked for a log of what temperature the fridges had been kept at, but the lab had not documented that, according to the report.
The inspector looked at a random selection of tests in one of the bags and found they were from Nov. 4-8 “and no COVID-19 PCR results were found,” according to the report.
An inspector on Nov. 30 saw a fridge “filled with biohazard bags,” which Center for COVID Control workers said “contained previously tested positive patient specimens,” according to the federal report.
At one point, when Illinois Department of Public Health inspectors came to visit, workers put bags of tests in a U-Haul parked behind the building and put other bags in a backroom because they didn’t want the inspectors to see the tests, Morales and the other former employee said.
Photos from Morales and the other former employee show tests in bags in the office.
The federal report notes an instance Nov. 17 where an inspector saw 18 boxes and eight envelopes that had been shipped to the Rollings Meadows office. The staff opened one of the boxes, which contained 51 samples for PCR tests, but the box did not have icepacks to refrigerate the tests, according to the report.
At one point, workers mixed up bags of medical waste and tests because both were kept in biohazard bags. The former employee said she and another worker were told to open the bags and go through them to see which had waste and which had tests.
“I was like, ‘What am I doing? What is this? This is so unsafe to us,'” the former employee said.
Morales said she knew of that incident while working there, though she was not involved.
When asked about the former employees’ allegations, a representative for the Center for COVID Control denied them.
The company “is fully committed to — in both the immediate and longer term — full clinical/lab compliance, testing integrity, retraining of staff, improved customer service and the return of a healthy, full-strength workforce as part of this week’s operational pause,” Keene said.
“Center for COVID Control remains committed to provide much needed testing capacity and access to serve patients and communities in this critical time.”
‘Probably Were Not The Most Ethical’
Though the Center for COVID Control was adding more sites, expanding to other states and getting thousands more tests, the team responsible for processing tests and working with customers in Rolling Meadows didn’t grow much, Morales said.
“It did get quite stressful,” Morales said. “There was a lot of miscommunication. We were being told to do things that probably were not the most ethical.”
During health department visits, the company’s leaders gave workers masks and other equipment to wear, when workers normally didn’t have to wear masks and came to work in pajamas, sweatpants and other clothing of their choice, Morales said.
Morales and the other former employee said they were also concerned about how they were told to work with customers. They sometimes had to work for the company’s call center “when they got really backed up,” Morales said. Patients would call in, saying they hadn’t received their test results in the time promised by the Center for COVID Control.
That was often because the test hadn’t yet been processed, Morales and the other former employee said. But workers were told to tell customers they hadn’t gotten results because their test was “inconclusive,” the two said.
“We were to tell them that their results were inconclusive and to go and retest — even though their test had not even been touched by the lab staff yet,” Morales said.
Many customers also called questioning why they got a negative result from Doctors Clinical Lab but had tested positive through another lab, Morales said.
The other former employee said those calls were distressing, as callers would say they had symptoms of COVID-19 and had been exposed — but hadn’t gotten their results. The former employee said they had to tell people their result was negative or, if it hadn’t been processed yet, say it was inconclusive.
“And I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, these people are positive. They’re just not getting their test run at the right time. Their test is a dead sample, most likely, because it was sitting out for hours and days. This is ridiculous,'” the former employee said. “I felt so bad.”
Numerous Chicagoans and people from across the United States have told Block Club they tested at a Center for COVID Control site and got a negative result — only to get a positive elsewhere. Others never received results, or received them so late the test was effectively useless. Some people who didn’t even test at the sites were still sent results.
Around Thanksgiving, the lab was about a week behind on processing tests, Morales said. Some workers were asked to work Thanksgiving night so they could catch up on processing tests and sending out results while the sites themselves were closed, Morales said.
“And suddenly we were only behind one or two days as opposed to a week,” Morales said. “That would have meant a lot — a lot — of tests being processed like that. And I don’t believe that’s something we could do, especially from my experience being the supervisor of the data entry.”
A full staff could normally get through 5,000-7,000 tests per night, Morales said; for the lab to catch up so much after Thanksgiving, the workers would have had to be doing about 13,000 tests per night, she said.
The other former employee said the lab at the Rolling Meadows headquarters was small and often dark, with no one appearing to work. In her affidavit, she said she saw two to three people working there “at any given time.”
“It seemed impossible for so few people to process the thousands of samples that [the Center for COVID Control] received daily,” she wrote.
The lab did work with at least one other external lab to process tests, she wrote. The federal report also notes off-site labs that worked under Doctors Clinical Lab to process tests.
Bills Going To The Government
When the staff was flooded with tests, they also started doing a process dubbed “save and print,” Morales and the other former employee said.
Workers would normally review a customer’s information, including their insurance information, and manually input information that was missing or incorrect, Morales said. But when they were backed up, workers would just bring up a person’s information, save it and print it, without ensuring their insurance information was accurate and without trying to contact people to get missing insurance information.
That meant many people’s “bill” for testing didn’t go to their insurance company, even if they had private insurance — it went to the government, Morales and the other former employee said.
“Save and print” happened frequently from August until Morales left in December, she said. Anywhere from 5,000 to 7,000 people on a busy night might get “save and printed,” she said.
There were also times when the company’s software didn’t work properly, so workers couldn’t access a person’s information to ensure their test would be billed correctly, and times when workers had to manually input patients’ information, a former employee said. In those instances, they’d only collect someone’s name, date of birth and email, so the person’s test was billed to the government even if they had insurance, the former employee said.
Often, if there was an issue with someone’s insurance information — like if their company didn’t appear in the dropdown menu workers used to determine where a test would be billed — workers would select the COVID Relief Fund instead of the person’s insurance, the former employee said.
“I would estimate that I selected the HRSA COVID-19 relief fund for over 90 [percent] of the COVID-19 PCR tests I entered into the [Center for COVID Control] database, because the consumers (from across the country) did not enter any insurance information, entered partial insurance information, or entered insurance information about a provider that was not available for me to select from the drop-down menu of” the database, the former employee wrote in their affidavit.
The former employee said when she was tested at a Center for COVID Control site, a worker there told her not to put down her insurance information, even though she had insurance.
Other people who have gone to the company’s sites have also told Block Club they were told to put down that they don’t have insurance.
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, when asked about those allegations, would not say if his agency is also conducting a criminal investigation into the Center for COVID Control’s billing practices.
“Here’s what I will tell you: We are investigating all avenues for accountability,” Ellison said at a Wednesday news conference.
‘Growing Very, Very Fast’
No one at the Center for COVID Control talked about slowing down, despite the frequent backlog in tests, Morales said.
A few more office workers were hired to go through the specimens, but the team did not expand substantially even as it was inundated with tests and it began taking five days and longer to get people results, former employees said.
“I don’t honestly know” why the company expanded when it was struggling to keep up with tests, Morales said. “But they were growing very, very fast and didn’t accommodate when it came to the staff and being able to put more staffing in there for whatever reason.”
A third former employee said there was not enough workers in the call center, and there were “issues” with taking calls from customers. More call center workers were added later, that former employee said.
Multiple customers tested at Center for COVID Control sites 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 waiting, and no answer once you got to the front of the line.
The second former employee said some people would wait on hold for hours, only to be disconnected during a shift change. Many others simply hung up, she said. She shared the same details in her affidavit.
At one point, the third former employee tested the call system and waited for an hour and 45 minutes to get to the front of the line. The former employee also heard many complaints about people not getting PCR results on time, they said.
“They only had a handful of sites, I think, early in April or May. And then they just grew to having 200-some sites in less than eight months,” that former employee said. “I think that they kind of grew very fast, faster than they could handle the tests processing.
“… It was very overwhelming for them. Just the sheer growth, the fast growth of all these COVID testing sites they had to take under their umbrella.”
Company leaders would talk in the office about the money they were getting from PCR and rapid tests, at one point saying they were bringing in more than $1 million per day, Morales and the second former employee said.
“I heard [Syed] talking to one of the … managers about how he made $4 million that week, and I heard them discussing which new cars they were planning to buy,” the former employee wrote in her affidavit. “I felt disgusted to hear [Syed and the Center for COVID Control] were making so much money from COVID-19 testing, when the samples were so often not processed or not processed accurately.”
Doctors Clinical Laboratory has received more than $124 million from the federal government for tests and treatment for people who are supposed to be uninsured, according to public data.
And Syed has posted repeatedly on social media about using “covid money” to buy luxury cars. Siyaj bought a $1.36 million home in November, while Syed has posted about buying cars worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, including a Ferrari that cost $3.7 million.
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 talks about buying a Lamborghini Countach luxury sports car, someone asked, “Oil money?” Syed replied, “Not even sure what means.. but no covid money.”
In another post, someone asked Syed how could he 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.”
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.”
Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers.
Listen to “It’s All Good: A Block Club Chicago Podcast” here: