Attorney General Ellison files lawsuit against COVID testing sites for ‘deceptive conduct’

Photo by Feven Gerezgiher The Center for COVID Control testing site on Hiawatha Ave in Minneapolis closed early following the announcement of nationwide closure. Residents and neighboring businesses described lines extending multiple storefronts along the strip mall.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison announced on Wednesday a lawsuit against two Illinois-based COVID testing companies the Center for COVID Control and its associated lab Doctors Clinical Laboratory for “false and deceptive conduct.”

Numerous consumers reported the companies never sent test results, sent results far later than advertised, or sent false or inaccurate results to consumers.

In some instances, the Center for COVID Control sent negative results to people who never got tested, the lawsuit alleges.

“The Attorney General’s office is here to help protect Minnesotans from COVID-19… but also from false, inaccurate information, which will exacerbate the crisis,” said Ellison at the virtual press conference.

Minnesota has over 44,000 new positive COVID-19 cases from the holiday weekend, said Minnesota Department of Health Assistant Commissioner Dan Huff.  

Not including at-home tests, the positive rate for daily testing is the highest since the pandemic began. Huff emphasized people knowing whether they are positive “empowers” them to take actions to limit the risk of transmission.

The Attorney General’s office seeks an effective injunction of the test companies that already do not have a certificate of authority to transact business in Minnesota. It also seeks restitution for Minnesota consumers who suffered out-pocket losses.

The Center for COVID Control moved to temporarily close its more than 300 testing sites across the country, eight of which exist in Minnesota, following increased media coverage and consumer criticism earlier this month.

“Regrettably, due to our rapid growth and the unprecedented recent demand for testing, we haven’t been able to meet all our commitments,” wrote founder and CEO Aleya Siyaj in a press release on Jan. 13. The Center said it would use the week-long closure to train staff and “ensure compliance with regulatory guidelines.”

The center said it would use the week-long closure to train staff and “ensure compliance with regulatory guidelines.” The company had planned to reopen on Saturday, Jan. 22, but has since extended its pause and will be closed “until further notice.”

Photo by Feven Gerezgiher The Center for COVID Control testing site on E. 7th Street in St. Paul on Jan. 13.

“Hectic” test sites

“Free COVID Testing Center, no appointment or health insurance needed” read signs at Center for COVID Control pop-up testing sites. The Twin Cities locations are simply named “Free COVID Testing” on Google.

Thursday evening, before the site’s closure, people—mostly People of Color or with small children—crowded in a line out the door of the small basement room serving as a testing site on St. Paul’s East Side.

At the Hiawatha location, lines are frequently long with little social distancing, according to Ausdel Carrera, an employee at the neighboring strip mall business.

With test appointments elsewhere filling up, the Hiawatha testing site seemed an attractive option to Minneapolis resident Julie F. (who asked that her last name be withheld). Yet when she arrived, she faced a line down the sidewalk and an unclear process.

 â€śIt seemed like a very hectic time. It was on probably one of the busiest days that I’ve seen yet. The staff seemed sort of frantic trying to keep it together,” she said. Julie added that customer service was slow to respond with her test result, which would arrive later than expected.

Mostly, she is concerned about the use of her data. The testing company requires those being tested to upload photos of their driver’s licenses to access testing.

The Attorney General’s lawsuit claims the Center for COVID Control has billed private insurers and the federal government for reimbursements. Doctors Clinical Laboratory billed the federal government $113 million, according to the lawsuit.

Edward Hugener reported the Center for COVID Control to the Attorney General after he and his daughter received negative results without being tested. He noted a similar scenario to Julie F. upon arrival and, finding it “shady” opted to test at the airport.

Hugener had filled out the online form at Center for COVID Control, however, and received notice of negative results even though he didn’t get tested there. The emailed results for his daughter also listed her as being tested at a time when she would have been in school.

An employee at the Center for COVID Control St. Paul testing site attested there have not been similar claims at her site where she’s worked for the past month. She attributes consumer claims and frustrations about delays in processing and errors to a reset in the company’s system.

However, the Attorney General’s office says former employees reached out and described the Illinois lab as chaotic. With increasing testing—up to 10,000 samples arriving daily for two fridges—test samples were collected in garbage bags. They were stored throughout the labs in an unorganized fashion so they could not be processed effectively.

Minnesota consumers and former workers are encouraged by the Attorney General office to report their concerns with the Center for COVID Control and Doctors Clinical Laboratory, including inaccurate reporting or failure to receive test results by submitting a complaint here or by calling the Attorney General’s Office at 651-296-3353 (Metro) or 800-657-3787 (Greater Minnesota) or 800-627-3529 (Minnesota Relay).

To find reputable testing sites, the Federal Trade Commission recommends consumers go to places referred to by their doctor or check the â€‹Minnesota COVID-19 Response site.