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How a wedding photographer and a failed donut shop owner got $124M in federal cash for COVID testing

A screenshot of a “Helpful Car Tips” YouTube video uploaded Jan. 1, 2022, reveals a 2018 Ford GT outdoors a house in Saint Charles, Illinois.

CHICAGO — First it was a Toyota pickup.

Then, a sky blue Lamborghini.

Then, on the finish of August final 12 months, Illinois resident Akbar Ali Syed posted a TikTok video of a pink Lamborghini Countach being unloaded from a flatbed truck.

“Countach added to my collection,” Syed wrote in the caption, including the tag “#entrepreneur.”

“Oil money?” a person requested.

No, Syed responded: “COVID money.”

Many questions are swirling round extra than simply the vehicles and Syed’s new $1.36 million mansion. The inquiries are targeted on a nationwide chain of coronavirus testing websites often known as the Center for COVID Control, now underneath scrutiny by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the Oregon Department of Justice and multiple state health departments.

Test-takers on the firm’s greater than 300 areas throughout the U.S. have reported the websites to state and native authorities, saying they obtained delayed take a look at outcomes, no outcomes or a number of conflicting outcomes, amongst different considerations. The firm has the Better Business Bureau’s lowest buyer evaluate score, and social media pages and Google opinions for the websites are full of complaints.

A federal company has documented numerous “deficiencies” on the firm’s important lab, Doctors Clinical Lab, which has been reimbursed greater than $124 million from the federal authorities’s COVID-19 uninsured program, in keeping with public data. Private well being insurers had been additionally paying the corporate.

At its peak, the corporate mentioned it was accumulating greater than 80,000 assessments per day. The federal authorities has reimbursed some labs at a price of $100 per PCR take a look at. It was not instantly clear how a lot the lab was billing non-public insurance coverage firms.

While a lot concerning the firm stays unclear, one factor is for certain: Longtime entrepreneurs Syed, 35, and his spouse, Aleya Siyaj, 29, are behind the operation. And – till latest days – they have been unabashed on social media about their rising wealth.

What is the Center for COVID Control, and how did it come to be?

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States has struggled to supply fast, simple and correct coronavirus testing. Nearly two years later, the Biden administration remains to be rolling out plans for insurance companies to cover the cost of over-the-counter tests and introducing a website where Americans can order free tests.

The Illinois-based Center for COVID Control cropped up in 2020 to fill a gap in the market. Siyaj, who the corporate refers to because the “CEO and founder,” registered the corporate in December that 12 months, state information present.

“CCC was founded to meet a critical market need to establish testing centers where COVID tests could be provided to patients rapidly and safely to minimize delay, and let people get on with their daily activities,” Siyaj mentioned in a assertion Thursday. An organization spokesperson didn’t reply to requests for remark Friday and Saturday.

The Center for COVID Control’s principal and mailing deal with is in Rolling Meadows, Illinois – a one-story business workplace constructing about 15 miles northwest of O’Hare International Airport.

The firm says it “primarily uses” Doctors Clinical Lab as a scientific testing vendor accomplice. But in keeping with public information, the lab is registered with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on the identical Rolling Meadows deal with because the Center for COVID Control.

A federal company underneath the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is investigating the lab for a number of alleged situations of misconduct. Employees work out of an workplace on the deal with and reply calls for each the lab and Center for COVID Control, the company says in public filings. Syed and Siyaj each work out of that workplace as properly.

As Center for COVID Control testing websites cropped up all through the U.S., Syed documented the corporate’s journey on his public social media pages.

In one since-deleted Facebook video posted July 29, 2021, Syed, underneath the Facebook identify “Akbar Syed Raza,” exhibits viewers round what he says is a Center for COVID Control workplace. In the video, Syed summons a man named “Neal.” Prompted by Syed, the person informs viewers he began working for the corporate in March.

“So what’s your annual salary at right now?” Syed asks.

“1.4-5 mil,” the person responds.

A screenshot of an Aug. 18, 2021 TikTok post by Akbar Ali Syed shows Aleya Siyaj beside a pickup truck.

A screenshot of an Aug. 18, 2021 TikTok submit by Akbar Ali Syed exhibits Aleya Siyaj beside a pickup truck.

On his public TikTok account, which was taken down Thursday, Syed typically shared photographs and movies of high-end vehicles. Syed’s nephew, an worker of the corporate, additionally chronicled the household’s rising automobile assortment on his public YouTube channel.

In an Aug. 15 submit, Syed shared a picture of what seems to be a child blue Lamborghini on stage at an public sale. “bidding on one of my dream car,” he wrote. Ten days later, Syed shared a video of a blue Lamborghini being unloaded from a truck in entrance of his house. “Dilevery Day!” he wrote.

A screenshot of an Aug. 15, 2021 TikTok post by Akbar Ali Syed shows a sky blue Lamborghini on stage at an auction.

A screenshot of an Aug. 15, 2021 TikTok submit by Akbar Ali Syed exhibits a sky blue Lamborghini on stage at an public sale.

Four days later, on Aug. 29, he shared the video of the pink Lamborghini Countach being unloaded from a truck.

A screenshot of an Aug. 29, 2021 TikTok post by Akbar Ali Syed shows a red Lamborghini Countach.

A screenshot of an Aug. 29, 2021 TikTok submit by Akbar Ali Syed exhibits a pink Lamborghini Countach.

In a Sept. 5 video, two autos may be seen racing down the road. “Huracan Vs R8 #lamborghini #audi #r8 #hurcan,” Syed wrote. Later that month, he shared a video of himself approaching the skin of the house, making ready to shock his spouse. “wife wanted a non 5g phone,” he wrote.

On the floor, the Center for COVID Control appeared to be going properly for Siyaj and Syed by early fall. It was not the couple’s first enterprise enterprise.

A TikTok screenshot from Sept. 27, 2021, by Akbar Ali Syed shows Syed outside his Illinois home.

A TikTok screenshot from Sept. 27, 2021, by Akbar Ali Syed exhibits Syed outdoors his Illinois house.

Before COVID testing: Wedding movies, donuts and axe-throwing

Back so far as 2013, Syed was operating a wedding picture and video firm, in keeping with former prospects and archived pages of the enterprise’ web site.

In the final 5 years, Siyaj, his spouse, has launched no less than six companies, in keeping with Illinois public information.

Siyaj is listed because the owner of O’s Donuts & Cafe Inc, which was included in 2017 and involuntarily dissolved in November 2020, in keeping with Illinois information. The firm was licensed in Michigan from 2018 to 2020, in keeping with state information.

Next got here axe-throwing: In early 2019, Siyaj established Axe Range, Inc, then, in 2020, Axe Lounge LLC, which was involuntarily dissolved the next 12 months.

From 2020 to 2021, Siyaj established Aenaz LLC, Lom Investments LLC and Testing Solutions, Inc. An Illinois resident listed because the agent for all three companies can be listed because the agent for Center for COVID Control.

‘Just enter ‘COVID take a look at close to me’ in the Google search bar’

The Center for COVID Control started experiencing hassle on the finish of 2021, because the omicron variant of the coronavirus arrived in the U.S. Cases surged amid the vacation season and Americans frantically flocked to testing websites.

“Just enter ‘COVID test near me’ in the Google search bar and you can find a number of different locations nearby where you can get tested,” President Joe Biden mentioned in an deal with to the nation in late December.

Tens of 1000’s of Americans did as Biden mentioned. Many stumbled upon listings for Center for COVID Control websites and, with no appointments wanted, hopped in line for assessments. Business for the corporate elevated, however to such a diploma that testing websites grew to become overwhelmed, revealing cracks in the fragile system.

Complaints started to emerge on the corporate’s social media pages and on site-specific Google opinions on the finish of 2021. Rumors concerning the websites swirled by Chicago, and one citizen journalist even launched his personal investigation into the corporate.

A screenshot of a Dec. 25, 2021 TikTok post by Akbar Ali Syed shows a Syed inside a sky blue Lamborghini.

A screenshot of a Dec. 25, 2021 TikTok submit by Akbar Ali Syed exhibits a Syed inside a sky blue Lamborghini.

Meanwhile, Siyaj and Syed continued to share their luxurious life-style on social media.

In November, Siyaj grew to become the owner of a $1.36 million house in Saint Charles, Illinois, in accordance Kane County information. A Zillow listing for the property exhibits a 3.65-acre lot on a non-public street with a gated entry, three-car storage, round entrance driveway, fountain, white pillars, iron double doorways, crystal chandeliers and a curved floating staircase.

A Dec. 10 video posted to the YouTube channel run by Syed’s nephew options the “unveiling” of a 2018 Ford GT. An equivalent 2018 Ford GT was sold for $985,000 on Dec. 3, in keeping with Bring a Trailer Auctions.

Two movies posted to the YouTube channel Dec. 31 and Jan. 1 present the 2018 Ford GT sitting in the driveway of the Saint Charles house. In the first, the lyrics “baby I’m a gangster too” play because the video rotates across the automobile. The second video seems to point out the automobile and house shot from above by a drone.

A screenshot of a "Helpful Car Tips" YouTube video uploaded Dec. 31, 2021, reveals a 2018 Ford GT outside a home in Saint Charles, Illinois.

A screenshot of a “Helpful Car Tips” YouTube video uploaded Dec. 31, 2021, reveals a 2018 Ford GT outdoors a house in Saint Charles, Illinois.

Recently, Syed shared movies on Facebook of himself moving into a Ferrari Enzo.

On Dec. 22, 2021, a 2003 Ferrari Enzo – one in every of solely 400 ever made by the intense sports activities automobile builder – was auctioned off for $3.7 million to a particular person in Illinois, in keeping with a web based public sale home. Supercars.internet reported the sale set a world file as “the highest sale price achieved on an online car auction platform” and “the highest sale price achieved for a Ferrari Enzo at an online auction.”

USA TODAY first reported on the Center for COVID Control in early January, after a reporter encountered one of many websites working out of a generator-powered cell storage unit in Chicago, the place baggage of assessments sat piled in crates on the bottom. Six days later, the corporate ordered a one-week “pause” on the gathering of assessments.

“Over the last week, we have seen increased scrutiny by the media into the operations of our collection sites,” the corporate mentioned in an inner memo to workers, obtained by USA TODAY. “This, coupled with various customer complaints, resulted in various state health departments and even Department of Justice taking a keen interest in our company.”

While native, state and federal authorities have been cautioning Americans for months towards visiting “pop-up” testing websites, none talked about the Center for COVID Control by identify – despite the fact that a federal company was conscious of rampant mismanagement on the important laboratory as early as November.

‘Non-compliance’ and ‘deficiencies’ at Doctors Clinical Lab

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, mentioned it performed surveys at a number of Center for COVID Control testing websites and “the main laboratory” in November and December and found “non-compliance” with numerous standards, affecting greater than 400,000 assessments. The company on Friday mentioned it was ready for a response from the lab to the cited “deficiencies.”

A "Center for COVID Control" testing site can be seen on Chicago's North Side on Sunday, Jan. 2, 2022.

A “Center for COVID Control” testing website may be seen on Chicago’s North Side on Sunday, Jan. 2, 2022.

An 81-page report discovered the lab was in “immediate jeopardy.” Among different considerations, the report discovered the lab didn’t guarantee all personnel had acceptable coaching, didn’t have acceptable tools, didn’t adjust to state reporting necessities, didn’t receive a required state lab license, didn’t preserve confidentiality of affected person data, didn’t precisely establish affected person samples submitted for PCR testing and didn’t doc complaints and issues reported to the lab.

Over 11 days in November, the lab obtained greater than 84,000 samples for PCR testing however carried out and reported simply greater than 43,000 outcomes, the report discovered. The lab director didn’t have sufficient workers to carry out the testing inside 72 hours after assortment and didn’t have the correct freezers to accurately retailer the samples, in keeping with the report.

Asked concerning the report, Center for COVID Control spokesperson Russ Keene mentioned: “The audit is of DCL; CCC has no ability or power to publicly comment upon it.”

“As a key vendor/supplier, CCC has reviewed the report with DCL, and worked with DCL in constructing DCL’s 10-Day response and discussion of corrective actions of items identified in the audit,” Keene mentioned,

The federal report suggests, nevertheless, the companies are working collectively. Doctors Clinical Lab and the Center for COVID Control are situated on the identical deal with, and workers who work on the lab’s name middle consult with themselves as Center for COVID Control workers, in keeping with the report.

Christina Morales, 29, labored on the important lab – what she known as “headquarters” – from July by December in the information entry division, name middle and receiving division. A pay stub obtained by USA TODAY was despatched from the Center for COVID Control.

Morales instructed USA TODAY she was employed after a good friend at a karaoke bar gave her the quantity for one of many firm’s managers. The subsequent day, she walked into the unlocked workplace constructing and started doing information entry for the lab.

“I literally just signed a direct deposit form and a tax form. I never signed a HIPAA agreement or anything like that,” Morales mentioned. “It was a little scary.”

A "Center for COVID Control" testing site can be seen on Chicago's North Side on Sunday, Jan. 2, 2022.

A “Center for COVID Control” testing website may be seen on Chicago’s North Side on Sunday, Jan. 2, 2022.

Morales mentioned Syed and Siyaj labored out of the workplace, and Syed’s vehicles may typically be seen parked outdoors. No one in the workplace wore face masks or gloves, she mentioned, anticipate when inspectors came over. For a number of months, workers had been placing biohazardous waste in common trash baggage and diposing it in common trash bins, she mentioned.

Within three weeks, Morales was supervising the information entry staff, overseeing 30 folks. At the time, the corporate had about 40 to 60 areas was processing about 1,200 assessments a day, she mentioned.

“I kind of kept my head down for a while because money really does talk, and they were paying really well,” she mentioned. “It seemed that every week or every other week we were opening up another three locations. That’s when I noticed my team started having issues keeping up and catching up.”

Morales mentioned Center for COVID Control operations started to crumble in late October amid a backlog of assessments, which arrived from in-state and out-of-state with none ice packs and had been typically ignored in the nice and cozy workplace for days on finish. USA TODAY reviewed a video taken contained in the workplace exhibiting plastic baggage of assessments in cardboard packing containers on the bottom alongside unopened packing containers of assessments.

“We were still instructed to process tests that were a week old,” Morales mentioned.

By December, the lab was receiving about 12,000 assessments a day, however there have been solely 34 folks on the information entry staff, she mentioned. “We were behind because they didn’t hire enough people to accommodate for all of the locations,” she mentioned. “Going from 65 locations to 300 in the span of a few months, how do you expect us to keep up?”

The name middle was receiving “hundreds” of calls, Morales mentioned, and the lab was 5 to 6 days behind on processing assessments. “We would tell them I’m sorry, your results came back inconclusive, you need to go and re-test. Those were our instructions from the director of operations,” Morales mentioned.

Morales mentioned prospects’ delicate private data was shared freely on varied firm WhatsApp teams, which mechanically obtain pictures to cell telephones. “My phone was just kind of getting flooded with personal information being sent by the location managers all the time,” she mentioned.

Another workers member who labored at headquarters confirmed Morales’ account.

Meanwhile, the Doctors Clinical Lab location in Rolling Meadows has been reimbursed greater than $113.7 million for testing and almost $9 million for remedy by the COVID-19 Claims Reimbursement to Health Care Providers and Facilities for Testing, Treatment, and Vaccine Administration for the Uninsured Program, in keeping with public information. A Chicago location has been reimbursed almost $1.4 million for testing and almost $50,000 for remedy.

The American Rescue Plan Act offered $4.8 billion to reimburse suppliers for testing the uninsured, and the Families First Coronavirus Response Act Relief Fund and the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act every appropriated $1 billion.

No coaching at take a look at websites: ‘I didn’t know as a result of no one instructed me’

Employees of Center for COVID Control testing websites instructed USA TODAY they didn’t obtain coaching on HIPAA compliance and weren’t supplied with the tools to make sure PCR assessments stayed at secure temperatures.

Bravette Fleet mentioned he began working at a testing website in Chicago in October. But it was greater than a month earlier than the positioning secured a fridge for the take a look at samples, he mentioned.

“We would just sit them on a table and line them up and at the end of the day bag them up so that the driver can come pick them up,” he mentioned.

Fleet mentioned he lastly realized he was presupposed to be putting PCR samples in a fridge when he took it upon himself to learn a handbook left on the website.

“When I read through the book about the steps we were supposed to take, I realized we weren’t taking them,” Fleet mentioned. “All of these things we weren’t doing that I didn’t know because nobody told me.”

Working out of an workplace house with no Wi-Fi, Fleet mentioned he typically despatched folks their take a look at outcomes from his private cellphones. One of Fleet’s former co-workers confirmed his account.

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Heather Doty, a former microbiology lab analyst at Cardinal Health, mentioned she began as a lab tech at a website in Hampshire, Illinois, on Dec. 6. “I had two hours and 45 minutes of training, and the next day was my first day alone,” Doty mentioned.

Doty mentioned her coaching consisted of observing website operations. She was not required to learn any coaching materials. She mentioned she started elevating considerations on the primary day and introduced points to the owner’s consideration.

“There’s certain things that as a lab tech, it’s common knowledge, common sense,” Doty mentioned. “Having a moral consciousness, I was not OK with just letting things go.”

Devon Townsend, 18, mentioned he has loved working at a website in Wisconsin, although he’s conscious of reviews of points at different areas. A freshman at UW Madison finding out pre-med, Townsend mentioned he began working on the website over winter break.

“There was no training required prior to opening,” he mentioned, however workers obtained a written information for evaluate.

Before the positioning paused take a look at assortment, Townsend mentioned he labored from open to shut every day. Speaking concerning the firm broadly, he mentioned: “It’s not like we’re out here trying to do anyone wrong, but people get all upset about a missed test result. We are trying our best, I promise.”

In an inner electronic mail obtained by USA TODAY that was despatched to workers of a Chicago testing website, all workers members had been requested to finish two coaching periods – one from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and one on HIPAA compliance – and add proof of their coaching certificates by Friday to a public Doctors Clinical Laboratory jotform.

Each coaching was anticipated to take roughly one hour, in keeping with the e-mail, which was despatched and signed by the manager assistant of a automobile wash chain who was additionally working as a website supervisor.

Asked about allegations made by former workers of the primary lab, in addition to these on the testing websites, Keene mentioned: “CCC fields such comments with great concern.”

“Such occurrences and practices are clearly not acceptable,” Keene mentioned. The firm’s “operational pause,” he mentioned, was “intended to eliminate any deviations from company policies and return CCC to a trusted, national provider of accessible, accurate, affordable/no cost Covid-19 tests, offering peace of mind to thousands of patients who entrust us with this critical mission.”

The lab can be dealing with scrutiny for its use of a trademarked emblem. DCL Corporation, a pigments provider, despatched a a cease-and-desist letter to the corporate Monday for a trademark violation. An internet site for Doctors Clinical Lab, take a look at varieties and emails despatched to check recipients characteristic DCL Corporation’s trademarked emblem.

Have extra details about the Center for COVID Control? Email reporter Grace Hauck at ghauck@usatoday.com.

A wesbite for Doctors Clinical Lab features the trademarked DCL Corporation logo.

A wesbite for Doctors Clinical Lab options the trademarked DCL Corporation emblem.

A screenshots of "pigments.com" show the trademarked DCL Corporation logo.

A screenshots of “pigments.com” present the trademarked DCL Corporation emblem.

This article initially appeared on USA TODAY: Center for COVID Control got millions, then failed patients nationwide

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