CHICAGO — The Center for COVID Control has come under fire in California as its Attorney General’s Office is investigating the troubled Illinois company and has demanded it provide proof it operated correctly.
The Center for COVID Control and its lab, Doctors Clinical Lab, are based out of suburban Rolling Meadows. It operated more than 300 pop-up testing sites around the United States, and its lab has been reimbursed more than $170 million from the federal government for testing and treatments.
But the businesses have come under increasing scrutiny after reports from Block Club highlighted concerns from customers about missing or delayed test results. Former employees told Block Club tests were left around the office in bags, unrefrigerated, for days at a time and they sought reimbursement from the government even when customers had private insurance. A company spokesman had denied former workers’ allegations.
The Center for COVID Control and its lab have been sued by two states and are being investigated by the FBI and other states. Its lab has been cited at the highest level by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid. It has closed amid the scrutiny.
Now, the California Attorney General’s Office is investigating the company. It sent a letter to the Center for COVID Control demanding it provide proof it operated properly and got results to customers within the timeframe it guaranteed, among other things.
The letter is part of an investigation that’s focused on complaints customers “did not receive test results within the advertised timeframes, if at all, as well as concerns about the accuracy of the test results” and the collection of customers’ data, according to the California Attorney General’s Office.
“Today’s letter to Center for COVID Control serves as a warning to all other COVID-19 testing sites operating in the state of California. If you are operating a testing site that is making false claims, failing to provide promised test results, or stealing people’s information, we will hold you accountable,” California Attorney General Rob Bonta said in a statement.
The state agency is demanding the Center for COVID Control review its advertising material and stop “making supported claims” about its testing services, provide evidence within 10 calendar days that it was in compliance with California’s requirements for laboratory licensing and comply with requirements for operating a testing site in California.
A spokesman for the Center for COVID Control did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter.
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 Aleya Siyaj and Akbar 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 $170 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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