CHICAGO — The embattled Center for COVID Control is shutting down, company leaders told employees during a meeting Thursday night.
The locally based COVID-19 testing company and its lab, Doctors Clinical Lab, have been the target of federal and state investigations after reports from Block Club and USA Today. Its sites — of which it had more than 300 around the United States — have been closed as it responded to the allegations.
The Center for COVID Control’s owners, Aleya Siyaj and Akbar Syed, told workers at an hour-long meeting Thursday they’d get one week’s worth of pay, but the testing company and its lab are shutting down, an employee said. The company’s employees also encouraged each other to contact reporters during the meeting.
“CCC will not go quietly, fight tooth and nail to silence the BS from these fake news outlets,” an employee wrote in a group message. Employees then shared contact information for a Block Club editor and USA Today reporter.
A Center for COVID Control spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Doctors Clinical Lab has been reimbursed more than $140 million from the federal government for testing and treatments.
But the companies are facing a slew of customer complaints and government investigations.
A spokesperson for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which regulate labs, said its agency did not order the shutdown.
“The suspension of testing was a voluntary business decision on the part of the Center for COVID Control and not tied to any direction or action by” the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the spokesperson said. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid is “is actively investigating numerous complaints about multiple laboratories and testing sites associated with the Center for COVID Control. [The agency] continues our investigations and will take compliance and enforcement actions as appropriate.”
The FBI raided the Center for COVID Control’s suburban headquarters this weekend. The Illinois Attorney General’s Office is “working with the FBI and other law enforcement partners,” spokeswoman Annie Thompson said in an emailed statement.
The Minnesota Attorney General’s Office filed a lawsuit against the company and lab last week, the Illinois Attorney General’s Office and Illinois Department of Public Health are investigating them, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid have cited the lab at the highest level of violations and other states have ordered the company to close testing sites and are investigating its work.
On Jan. 13, Block Club revealed an 81-page report from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services that detailed “deficiencies” and “non-compliance” at the lab used by the company, Doctors Clinical Lab. It was cited for “immediate jeopardy,” the most serious infraction, with inspectors noting the lab had made mistakes that led to wasting tens of thousands of PCR tests, workers not correctly processing rapid tests and the lab not properly storing test samples, among other problems.
Former employees of the Center for COVID Control have also told Block Club they were told to lie to customers, keep tests in garbage bags, unrefrigerated, around the office and bill tests to the federal government, even when customers had private insurance.
The Better Business Bureau, a nonprofit that tracks consumer complaints about businesses, has given the Center for COVID Control an “F” rating and is investigating complaints about the chain.
And numerous people from across the United States have said they never got test results from the company, their results were badly delayed or their results didn’t make sense.
Former Center for COVID Control employees said the company struggled to keep up with tests and had issues for months before Omicron was detected in the United States.
While that confusion unfolded, the leaders of the company bought a $1.36 million home and posted online about buying cars worth hundreds of thousands of dollars — including saying they bought a Ferrari that cost $3.7 million. Syed, who represents himself as a leader of the company, posted that he was able to buy luxury cars thanks to “covid money.”
After Block Club’s Jan. 13 report, the company shut down its pop-ups for a week, saying it’d take the time to work on compliance and training staff.
But the sites never reopened in Illinois. The Illinois Attorney General’s Office said the Center for COVID Control agreed to keep its pop-ups closed after authorities contacted its leaders.
From Axe-Throwing Lounges To COVID Tests
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 Chicago couple who, before focusing on COVID-19 testing in 2021, ran axe-throwing lounges. Syed also created wedding videos.
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; in one, he recorded himself speaking to an employee and asking the man to say what he makes.
The man said he has been with the company for four months and makes $1.45 million.
Syed appeared to remove that title and videos after being contacted by reporters.
Siyaj bought a $1.36 million home in November, USAToday first reported. The nearly 7,000-square-foot home has crystal chandeliers, a two-story living room, a library with a fireplace, a “master wing” with a bedroom and a 4-acre yard, according to a listing.
In Facebook posts, Syed wrote in December he had bought a rare Ferrari. An online listing said the car sold at auction for $3.7 million, not including commission.
Syed has also made 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 talks 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 post, someone asked Syed how could he afford “all those cars.” “Covid testing,” Syed replied. “Rapid and pcr both.”
Syed’s nephew also posted videos on YouTube showing Syed “unveiling” a 2018 Ford GT, and other videos show the car in Syed’s driverway, USAToday reported. The same car sold for $985,000 in early December.
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’s TikTok account was taken down after reporters contacted him.
Frustration Across The Nation
People going to Center for COVID Control sites across the United States 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 was getting their results and ensuring they were accurate.
Block Club spoke to people tested at various sites who said they never received 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, 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.
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.”
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.
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 HIPAA laws.
People who were sent a positive test result were also sent a QR code; that one went to the Google search for “positive.”
The Center for COVID Control and its partner lab, Doctors Clinical Lab, are facing several investigations among federal and state authorities.
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 from various states highlighted a number of issues in the report.
They said Doctors Clinical Lab didn’t have enough personnel to test all the PCR samples it got, and it did not have enough freezer space to store them, which resulted in more than 41,000 samples being unusable during an 11-day period in November.
Inspectors also found the lab wasn’t do quality control testing on the machine used to test samples, and workers at testing sites weren’t properly conducting rapid tests, among other issues.
The Center for COVID Control and Doctors Clinical Lab have also faced scrutiny from other agencies.
The Illinois Attorney General’s Office has received complaints about the Center for COVID Control and has opened an investigation, a spokesperson said. People who want to file a complaint can do so online.
Multiple attorney general’s offices in other states told Block Club they have received complaints about Center for COVID Control sites.
A spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Public Health said the agency is investigating complaints against the lab. Other state health departments are also investigating.
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 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.
Experts have also raised questions about the company’s billing practices.
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.
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.
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.
Public data shows the federal government has reimbursed Doctors Clinical Laboratory more than $124 million for COVID-19 tests and “treatments.”
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.
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