CHICAGO – A nationwide coronavirus testing company under investigation by the Oregon Department of Justice and which has drawn criticism from customers in several states announced on Thursday a "one-week pause on all operations."
The pause was expected to take effect Friday through Jan. 21 at all Center for COVID Control testing sites. The Illinois-based company's website says it has more than 300 locations in the U.S. across several states. Two of those, Massachusetts and Washington, took action this week to shut down several of the company's testing centers in their communities.
In an internal company memo addressed to "all location owners and managers" and obtained by USA TODAY, the Center for COVID Control cited "increased scrutiny by the media into the operations of our collection sites" over the past week. The company says it processes 80,000 test requests per day.
"This, coupled with various customer complaints, resulted in various state health departments and even Department of Justice taking a keen interest in our company," the notice said.
What's the Center for COVID Control? Questionable sites spotlight nation's thirst for quick testing
The company officially confirmed the weeklong pause in a press release, saying "unusually high patient demand has stressed staffing resources."
"Center for Covid Control is committed to serving our patients in the safest, most accurate and most compliant manner. Regrettably, due to our rapid growth and the unprecedented recent demand for testing, we haven't been able to meet all our commitments," Aleya Siyaj, the company's founder and CEO, said in the release.
Company spokesperson Russ Keene confirmed the authenticity of the internal memo that was sent to employees.
The news of the weeklong pause comes after the Oregon Department of Justice opened a civil investigation into the Center for COVID Control this week on suspicion of Unfair Trade Practices Act violations, spokeswoman Kristina Edmunson said.
At least two people filed complaints about the sites to the Oregon Justice Department late last year, Edmunson said. Since USA TODAY reported on the company last week, another ten people have filed complaints, Edmunson said.
In Massachusetts, the Department of Public Health, in conjunction with the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, issued cease and desist letters to three Center for COVID Control locations Wednesday, spokesperson Ann Scales said.
"Residents are urged not to visit the Center for COVID Control for a COVID-19 test," Scales said.
The sites in Needham, North Dartmouth and Worcester were performing tests "without the required state approvals" and were ordered to "immediately cease providing all services that require clinical laboratory licensure," Scales said.
Illinois has received seven complaints about the sites, the Illinois Attorney General's Office said. Washington State has received two, according to the Washington State Attorney General’s Office.
On Wednesday, the city of Lakewood, Washington, shut down a Center for COVID Control testing site operating without a business license and notified local and state authorities, according to a press release.
"The City has no present knowledge of impropriety at this location beyond operation without a business license," the release said. "The Washington State Department of Health and the Office of the Attorney General are both aware of national interest in the business."
Center for COVID Control: Company under investigation by Oregon DOJ, Better Business Bureau
In New York, a state department of health investigation found the company was conducting on-site rapid testing "in the absence of New York State Department of Health approval," department spokesperson Erin Silk said.
"The Center for COVID Control was informed to cease rapid testing and obtain the appropriate approvals for rapid COVID-19 testing," Silk said. "The Center for COVID Control may continue to collect samples for PCR testing."
Meanwhile, a coalition of regional offices with the nonprofit Better Business Bureau is also looking into the company.
"Center for Covid Control has the lowest grade the BBB can give a business as well as the lowest customer review rating," Thomas Johnson, spokesperson for the BBB of Chicago and Northern Illinois, told USA TODAY.
According to Johnson, people reporting to the BBB allege they did not receive test results, received incorrect test results or paid money for expedited results that were not delivered. They allege the company is "asking for a lot of personal information" and not responding to customers with questions about their test results, Johnson said.
Dozens of people nationwide, including test-takers and present and former employees, have reached out to USA TODAY expressing concerns about the company's practices.
In the internal notice to employees, the Center for COVID Control said the customer complaints were "hyperbolized."
"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.
The company said the daily number of tests it collects has increased "over the last few weeks" from 8,000 per day to more than 80,000 per day, "equating to most individual testing sites seeing an overwhelming 10x increase in patients."
"During the 'pause' period, we need to work together to complete all compliance trainings, get all our documentation up to date, procure site-specific CLIA waivers and more," the memo said. "This will not be time off for any of us."
The company was expected to host a one-hour webinar Thursday afternoon.
"Enforcing this 'pause' is something that needs to be done to protect the interest of all of us — it is essential for our mutual survivorship," the memo said.
A Twitter account tied to the company's website was suspended Wednesday. Twitter representatives contacted Wednesday and Thursday did not immediately offer comment on why.
Christina Weber, 31, of Minneapolis, told USA TODAY she reported a Center for COVID Control testing site to local officials and was later contacted by an investigator for the Minnesota Attorney General's Office, who informed her she was not the first to report a complaint with the site.
The office was unable to confirm or deny the existence of complaints or investigations under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, said John Stiles, deputy chief of staff for Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison.
In Florida, one family who filled out an online form for the Center for COVID Control received their test results while still waiting in line to take the test, WINK-TV reported. USA TODAY could not immediately verify the report.
The Center for COVID Control's principal and mailing address is in Rolling Meadows, Illinois – a one-story commercial office building about 15 miles northwest of O'Hare International Airport in Chicago.
The company "primarily uses" Doctors Clinical Laboratory "as a clinical testing vendor partner," the press release said. The lab is registered with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as an independent lab and is listed at the same Rolling Meadows address. A phone number listed on a website for the lab directs callers to a recorded message for the Center for COVID Control.
According to the company, the Center for COVID Control was established in 2020 and runs brick-and-mortar testing locations and drive-through sites. The company says it employs more than 3,000 Americans.
The company describes itself as "one of the first testing centers that required no appointments, and accepted all walk-in patients, as well as accepting most insurance and uninsured patients."
Have you experienced issues with the Center for COVID Control? Contact reporter Grace Hauck at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Center for COVID Control testing sites to 'pause' test collection