CHICAGO — The Center for COVID Control is facing another lawsuit, this one from Washington state’s attorney general, who alleges the Illinois company put people at risk with “sham” testing sites.
The Center for COVID Control and its lab, Doctors Clinical Lab, are based out of suburban Rolling Meadows, and it operated more than 300 pop-up testing sites around the United States and has been reimbursed more than $155 million from the federal government for testing and treatments.
The Washington state Attorney General’s Office’s lawsuit alleges the company provided “invalid, false and delayed” COVID-19 test results, or no results at all, and it had “unlawful practices,” including storing tests in garbage bags for more than a week and backdating old samples. The company’s employees marked customers as “uninsured” even if they had insurance, sending the testing bill to the government, and were told to lie to customers, according to the lawsuit.
“Center for COVID Control contributed to the spread of COVID-19 when it provided false negative results,” Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in a news release. “These sham testing centers threatened the health and safety of our communities.”
Center for COVID Control owners Akbar Syed and Aleya Siyaj told employees Thursday they’re shutting down.
The company and lab’s Rolling Meadows headquarters were raided by the FBI, and they’re facing investigations from various federal and state agencies. The lab has been cited at the highest level by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, with inspectors noting numerous “deficiencies” there.
The allegations in the Washington state suit largely mirror those of a lawsuit from Minnesota’s attorney general that was filed Jan. 19.
Washington State Lawsuit
The Washington lawsuit alleges the Center for COVID Control had at least 13 sites across the state, though it only had a business license to operate in one municipality.
The company’s website and employees at pop-up sites regularly told people they could expect to get COVID-19 test results in 24-72 hours, but the company and owners were “aware that they are actually unable to process many of the samples” being sent in “at that pace,” according to the suit.
Staff at the Center for COVID Control couldn’t keep up with the number of tests being sent in, so they put them in garbage bags, “piling them in various corners of their office,” according to the suit. Former employees told the Washington Attorney General’s Office they’d “regularly” find test samples that were more than a week old and had not been refrigerated or tested by the lab, according to the suit.
Many customers in Washington did not receive test results at all, according to the suit. And when results were delivered, “their reports are often inaccurate,” the lawsuit alleges.
The suit says one woman — who had been exposed to COVID-19 and had symptoms — got tested at a Center for COVID Control site on Jan. 11 but did not get results. She was told her result was lost, so she tested again, and was then told the second result was also lost — but got an email with a negative result just one minute later, according to the suit.
The woman’s result was negative, but she was “suspicious” of that, so she tested at a state-run site, and her result from there was positive, according to the lawsuit.
Former employees said they were told to begin falsely post-dating samples to make it appear they’d been taken more recently they than they were, and those samples would still be tested despite being old, according to the lawsuit.
Former employees said they were told to tell customers who called in to complain about delayed results that their result would come in 24 hours or their result was inconclusive and they should get tested again, even if their original test hadn’t been processed yet, according to the lawsuit.
Doctors Clinical Lab has been reimbursed by the federal government for testing “allegedly-uninsured patients across the nation,” but Center for COVID Control employees were told to mark people as uninsured — even if they had insurance — if that person’s insurance wasn’t listed in a drop-down menu or if they’d failed to provide proof of insurance, according to the suit.
And as testing increased, employees were told to “streamline” data entry by, i part, marking a person as “uninsured” even if they had insurance, according to the suit.
In instances where a person was marked uninsured, the federal government would reimburse the company for that test.
The lawsuits asks for the court to force the Center for COVID Control to “stop all its unlawful conduct,” pay penalties of up to $12,500 per violation of the Consumer Protection Act, relinquish profits from unlawful conduct and pay attorneys’ costs and fees, according to the Washington state Attorney General’s Office.
Read the full lawsuit:
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers.
Listen to “It’s All Good: A Block Club Chicago Podcast” here: