After Santa Fe behavioral therapist Isaiah Sorrell was notified a client’s parent had tested positive for COVID-19, he searched for the nearest site to get his own test and found a pop-up location in the south-side Sprouts parking lot.
But unlike other COVID-19 test sites around the city, this one isn’t approved by the New Mexico Department of Health. It’s run by a company facing a slew of complaints and investigations alleging shady business practices and long waits for results. Others have reported paying for expedited test results that never came.
“I don’t think it should be allowed to keep going if it’s true,” Sorrell said while standing in line at the site Thursday to register. “There are a lot of people who need these tests.”
The company that runs the site, Center for COVID Control, has generated “numerous complaints both locally and from across the country,” according to the Better Business Bureau of Chicago & Northern Illinois’ website.
According to the bureau — which gives the company an F rating — complaints covered a range of issues, such as poor customer service and requests for personal data such as driver’s license information.
The Oregon Department of Justice, as well as other state agencies, has since launched investigations into the company. Other cities have shut down test centers for operating without a business license.
Dave Herndon, spokesman for the city of Santa Fe, wrote in an email the site is not associated with the city and said the state Office of the Attorney General is looking into the complaints.
Jerri Mares, director of communications and legislative affairs for the Office of the Attorney General, wrote in an email that the office is reviewing complaints it has received to determine the best course of action.
Representatives for the New Mexico Department of Health did not respond to emails about the testing sites.
The company, based in Rolling Meadows, Ill., claims on its website to run more than 300 test sites across the country, including the site in Santa Fe and one in Albuquerque. The company was established in December 2020 and lists Aleya Siyaj as its founder and CEO, according to the Illinois secretary of state’s website.
In a response to the complaints, the company stated in a news release Thursday it would pause testing at its sites nationwide Friday through Jan. 22. In the release, it blamed the complaints on staffing issues amid a testing surge.
“Center for COVID Control is committed to serving our patients in the safest most accurate and most compliant manner,” Siyaj said in a statement. “Regrettably, due to our rapid growth and the unprecedented recent demand for testing, we haven’t been able to meet all our commitments.”
But according to USA Today, which obtained an internal memo to company employees, the pause is due in part to increased media scrutiny.
“While many of the accusations against us may be hyperbolized, there are definitely areas that we need to improve on. We need to do better in ensuring our sites are compliant, our staff properly trained and above all, we need to ensure we are conducting and reporting each test accurately,” the memo said, according to USA Today.
The company’s Twitter account has been suspended.
Its website says the company offers free testing as well as workplace testing, but when customers register online, they are asked to provide personal data such as driver’s license information, a photo and their health insurance provider.
The company says in its news release it uses the independent lab Doctors Clinical Laboratory — test cards at the Santa Fe site showed its logo at the top left corner — as a clinical testing partner. The lab is registered with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration; its listed address is the same as the Center for COVID Control’s.
The company also says it has administered up to 80,000 tests per day and has more than 3,000 employees.
At the company’s Santa Fe test site, in a portable office at the corner of Cerrillos Road and Zafarano Drive, a large red, white and blue poster advertised “Free COVID-19 Testing.” The bottom of the ad states no insurance information is required.
Inside the office Thursday, a man in scrubs handed lined-up customers testing material and an information card with a QR code for them to scan and register their information. The man said the site has been open for two to three months.
The customers were then sent back to their vehicles to self-administer the test. After that, they put the swabs back in the same disposable wrapper they’d emerged from before getting in a separate line to submit the samples.
After being informed about the allegations, Virgil Vigil of Santa Fe, who was waiting in line to return his results, said he was willing to complete the process because he needed the test results for work.
Still, Vigil said he was particularly concerned about how the samples were being handled and the legitimacy of the results.
Sorrell had similar concerns. While administering the test in his car, he criticized the way in which the samples were kept.
“It should be in some kind of sealed container,” he said, “but like I said, I needed to get tested.”
Retail worker Dulce Merino of Santa Fe was in line to register for a test Thursday morning after waking up with COVID-19 symptoms, but after being informed about the allegations, she opted to find another site.
“It is a little concerning,” she said before leaving. “Especially with how many people are in line here.”
About 45 people could be seen waiting in line Thursday. Among them was Rick Volden of Santa Fe, who said he waited in line for about 2½ hours before submitting his test.
Volden said he overheard a conversation about the allegations and became skeptical once he saw that the site was not on the Department of Health’s list of approved testing locations.
He said he was told about the site when he called local hospitals to inquire about testing locations.