It has been a rough week for pop-up COVID testing companies as state and federal investigations heat up on some of its major players. An industry that cropped up fast may be suffering a similarly rapid end.
Center for COVID Control, the Rolling Meadows-based testing company that managed hundreds of testing sites and is now the source of many federal and state probes, may be closing.
The company’s owners told employees in a Thursday night video conference, according to a news report by Block Club Chicago.
A statement to NBC 5 Responds didn't go that far, saying it will suspend operations indefinitely.
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A spokesperson for CCC said Center for Covid Control founder Aleya Siyaj "told the site operators the CCC co-founders are 'shifting our focus away from operating the test collection marketing and management firm to responding and cooperating with legal probes, and to clearing our good names.'"
"With the field collection sites no longer affiliated with CCC, most headquarters operations will also wind down for the foreseeable future," the spokesperson said. "Regrettably,150 Chicago positions will no longer be needed after February 4 leading to employee layoffs. Syed noted, 'Employees are being fully compensated for the final two weeks, we have communicated their availability to other testing companies and placement agencies, and we truly wish them the best.'"
The news comes after state authorities this week confirmed two more Illinois-based labs, O’Hare Clinical Lab and Northshore Clinical Lab, are under investigation after scores of consumer complaints.
Each company has received hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, according to CDC data.
With so much money at stake, a question on many minds, including the feds, how did this mess get so big?
"It was mayhem… it was the wild west."
Dr. William Rasmussen said he didn’t think much at first when he learned new neighbors were moving in last October, next to his Garfield Ridge Chiropractic practice of 16 years.
Then, the crowds started showing up.
Those neighbors? Center for COVID Control (CCC).
"It was mayhem. I mean, it was a wild west," Rasmussen said.
The new CCC testing location was next door to Rasmussen’s office, sharing the same lobby, and same air, as his patients. In his eyes, Rasmussen said there was very little organization, with safety protocols flouted.
"People were standing in lines out the door," Rasmussen said. "They were in the clinic, and it was intolerable."
The images Rasmussen captured on his security cameras in the lobby and phone tell the story: overcrowding, no social distancing, people filling out paperwork wherever they could find a space.
In some cases, he said CCC personnel performed swab tests on patients in the shared lobby.
"Guesstimating, [there were] probably close to 200 [people] in the morning and another 200 in the afternoon," he explained. "And there's going to be a percentage of those people coming in that are positive. And if they're sitting in the reception room, then you're sitting in with a loaded gun."
Rasmussen said some of his patients started canceling their appointments in order to avoid the growing crowds.
NBC 5 Responds could not reach the CCC testing site manager for comment. The building’s owner said they had tried to mediate the situation the best they could for both tenants, but did not provide further comment.
Company Roadmap Nationwide
It’s complaints like these that landed CCC on the radar of state and federal investigators, including an active investigation by the FBI and Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General, as well as several state Attorney General’s offices.
FBI agents confirmed serving a search warrant at CCC’s main headquarters in Rolling Meadows last weekend.
A spokesperson for CCC said it is "fully cooperating with all government inquiries."
Records show the company’s owners, husband and wife team Aleya Siyaj and Akbar ‘Ali’ Syed, grew a testing empire that spanned 22 states with more than 300 locations in a year’s time.
So how did the testing company grow so quickly? A document obtained by NBC 5 Responds may provide a glimpse.
In part, the company had a number of independent agreements with "collection site managers," according to NBC 5’s previous reporting, and an internal onboarding document for CCC, obtained by NBC 5 Responds.
The document was written for anyone "interested in opening up a COVID-19 collection and transportation site" and appears to be a roadmap on how to "get started," including how to find a location that’s not too close to the company’s other collection sites "to avoid conflict."
In its onboarding, the company states it is preferred that site managers obtain leases on a month-to-month basis, in case "funding is taken away by the government."
Funding, as in the more than $150 million CCC’s main lab, Doctors Clinical Laboratory (DCL), has already received from the federal government to date.
CCC gets a cut of that, a spokesman for CCC confirmed, by way of a ‘management services agreement’ between CCC and DCL.
The company’s onboarding document was provided to NBC 5 Responds by a source that wished to remain anonymous. NBC 5 verified the document was sent from a CCC email address to a prospective site manager.
While the document refers to a separate "one pager" that contains details on supplies, the onboarding directions contain no safety directives or details on finding locations with room for social distancing practices. It does provide contact information for the company’s Onboarding Representative.
NBC 5 Responds repeatedly emailed CCC questions about the document, but the company did not respond.
Previously, the company attributed its challenges to the sudden surge in omicron infections this past winter. One company owner told NBC 5 the company went from testing "8,000 people a day to 80,000."
The company’s onboarding document states, "it is up to the location manager to obtain all necessary permits and licenses from the city's village hall." NBC Bay Area found at least one testing location in Mountain View, California, that city officials said was unlicensed.
Here in Chicago, testing sites do not require local licenses, according to the city’s Department of Business Affairs & Consumer Protection (BACP).
Rasmussen told NBC 5 he tried, on multiple occasions, to contact city, county, state and federal officials about the CCC testing site next door to his office, but no one could help him.
While COVID-19 testing labs are required to have federal certification, collection sites are not regulated, according to Illinois state officials.
"Everybody kept telling me it's not us. We don't regulate them," Rasmussen said, adding that he feels testing sites "need credentialing."
"The federal authorities and state authorities [need to] step up to the plate and write the law right away," Rasmussen said.