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Local complaints, state investigation dogs COVID-19 test company Medivolve with 2 Sonoma County sites

Types of COVID-19 testing

PCR tests detect the presence of specific genetic material and generally take several days for results.

Antigen tests detect active infection, and results can be made available in as little as 15 minutes.

Antibody tests detect whether there was a previous infection and results can be available in 24-48 hours.

The California Department of Public Health is investigating a company that operates two coronavirus testing sites in Sonoma County, and county officials are now urging residents to have their testing done elsewhere.

The news comes in the wake of numerous complaints about confusing, delayed or nonexistent test results, along with issues over the company’s billing practices.

State health officials said they could not comment on Medivolve, which runs testing sites at Santa Rosa Plaza and Petaluma Premium Outlets, because of its ongoing investigation. The company’s third North Bay location is at Vacaville Premium Outlets.

More than 20 negative experiences relayed to The Press Democrat from consumers include everything from dubious sterilization protocols to hourslong lines to garbled login instructions on the company’s website.

But the most consistent complaints — and among the most serious — fall into three categories: contradictory rapid results; PCR test results that take weeks to arrive, or never arrive at all; and Medivolve’s insistence on performing all three of its available tests — rapid antigen, rapid antibody and PCR — on every visitor.

County Supervisor Chris Coursey, whose district includes Santa Rosa Plaza, said he is trying to get caught up on the alleged problems at the sites.

“I can’t say whether this is a business taking advantage of people in a time of crisis and need,” Coursey said. “But if it is, that’s just despicable.”

Lanny J. Davis, attorney and Medivolve spokesman, said he regrets that some customers have been disappointed in their experience with the company. Inconsistent results, he noted, are common in rapid antigen tests, because they measure viral load at a very specific point and time.

The contradictory rapid results have confounded residents and brought real-world ramifications.

Kendra Neese and her family, for example, missed out on a long-anticipated anniversary trip to Disneyland with her partner and 7-year-old.

The Santa Rosa couple was insistent on getting negative results before they traveled, and Neese and her partner both did. But the child’s rapid test — after hours at the site, and several botched nasal swabs — came back positive, Neese said.

Strangely, Neese was tested three times that day and got two results. Her daughter was tested twice and received three results.

The family decided to rely on the more accurate PCR results, which are considered the gold standard of public coronavirus testing and typically take two to three days to get back.

The PCR test detects the presence of a virus if a person has the virus at the time of the test. The test could also detect fragments of the virus even after a person is no longer infected.

But for Neese and her family, the PCR results didn’t arrive in time to preserve their vacation.

“It was an awful experience,” Neese said. “They were extremely disorganized. I believe in my heart someone needs to oversee the Santa Rosa Plaza location because we have a lot of false positive and false negative walking around because of it.”

From a public health standpoint, the false negatives are the biggest concern. They can result in people mixing with friends and neighbors without knowing they are infected.

That easily could have happened to Venae Hulsey.

Having been exposed to COVID-19, the Santa Rosa resident stayed away from work and quarantined herself. Both of her rapid tests at the downtown mall came back negative. She waited for a PCR result. It was positive. By that time, she was showing symptoms.

“If I had relied on the rapid results, I could have spread COVID,” Hulsey said.

Medivolve is in the process of making its website clearer and more user-friendly, Davis said.

The slow PCR results are perhaps more concerning.

Sonoma County consumers report three- and four-week gaps between testing and their PCR notice, a lag that renders the result useless when it finally arrives.

Others say they never did get their PCR result from Medivolve, or that a positive result sat on a website with no alert from the company or from the county.

Davis attributed the delayed results to an uptick in volume. Since mid-August, he said, the number of people visiting Medivolve sites for tests has more than tripled. The company has seen roughly 3,000 patients a day during that span.

“Their systems are not set up to handle that level of volume, so within the last month, they have expanded their capabilities,” Davis said. “They are taking steps internally to cope with this larger volume they think is driven by the delta variant.”

Medivolve has committed at least $10 million to new equipment and software, he added.

Types of COVID-19 testing

PCR tests detect the presence of specific genetic material and generally take several days for results.

Antigen tests detect active infection, and results can be made available in as little as 15 minutes.

Antibody tests detect whether there was a previous infection and results can be available in 24-48 hours.

And many residents are troubled by the company’s insistence on getting all three types of test.

Parents, in particular, frequently have no interest in getting an antibody test for their young children. Those tests involve a finger prick.

Several parents reported grade-school kids screaming in tears in anticipation of getting a stick no one in the family wanted. One mother said her daughter fainted twice in the Plaza parking lot, which prompted an EMT visit.

Some consumers reported Medivolve charging for the rapid swab tests. The others are free to consumers, but their insurance or the government is billed for it.

An Aug. 5 Medivolve news release read that, “Medivolve’s new financial model is powered by an automated insurance billing platform that connects with over 8,700 different carriers across the nation. This, combined with access to respective government programs for the uninsured and undocumented, the company estimates a population coverage of over 99.7% of individuals could be eligible for COVID-19 testing at no cost to patients.”

Asked about the insistence on three separate tests, Davis wrote in an email that “Medivolve made a clinical decision to ensure maximum reliability of COVID test results and the highest level of patient care by requiring all three tests — PCR, antigen rapid testing, and antibody rapid testing. If individuals want only one or two of these tests because of time pressure to obtain results, such as a scheduled tourist destination or travel abroad requiring such test results, they are free to choose other providers.”

Asked about the practice, the CDPH replied that it “will add these concerns to our investigation.”

The Toronto-based company has grown substantially during the pandemic. Medivolve “seeks out disruptive technologies, groundbreaking innovations, and exclusive partnerships to help combat COVID-19 and generate remarkable risk-adjusted returns for investors,” according to its news releases.

Recent news statements paint a picture of growth and healthy income streams. On Aug. 17, Medivolve trumpeted a 236% increase in weekly gross revenue. Two days later, the company announced plans to hire 400 or more medical professionals.

Medivolve operates 15 COVID-19 testing sites in California, and 31 nationwide. Its California operation began in partnership with San Diego-based Alcala Labs. That company ended the relationship in May and is now suing Medivolve for breach of contract.

Though Sonoma County has no direct agreement with Medivolve, some residents wonder whether the county should have spotted red flags. Results from all test sites are collected into the CalREDIE system, and that data is shared with counties. Friday, a Sonoma County spokesman said they have received no CalREDIE results from Medivolve since May.

“We have reached out to find out why this is and if they changed the way they report results, but we have not heard back,” he added.

Davis insisted this, too, was a product of the massive uptick in its volume of tests.

“We intend to be fully cooperative and transparent to the California Department of Public Health, with Sonoma County elected officials and regulators, if there are any,” Davis said. “But one thing we’re ready to concede, we’ve been slower the last month and a half reporting data than we should be.”

The last Medivolve results entered into CalREDIE showed an average turnaround time of 1.9 days for PCR tests from March through May, county epidemiologist Kate Pack said. Most of the complaints made to the Press Democrat involve incidents in July and August.

“It would be great if we were able to keep track of everything going on with COVID,” Coursey said. “But this sounds like a for-profit business that has set up rules we don’t have control over. And honestly, it’s hard enough keeping reins on things we do have control over. Should we do more? I need more information to answer that question.”

Wherever blame rests, the disconnect between the testing company and the county is a problem, Josette Boyle believes.

“The county shows us the numbers on testing,” the Santa Rosa resident said. “If they’re not getting numbers from Medivolve or from, say CVS, they don’t have the numbers they set policy on.”

Boyle took her daughter to get tested at Santa Rosa Plaza in July. So did another local mom, Michelle Klimek. Their 10-year-olds were part of a group of friends whom they believed had been exposed to the virus. Klimek’s daughter received a negative rapid antigen test and a positive antibody test. Boyle’s girl received got the opposite results, and later tested positive through a different company.

The whole experience made Boyle wary.

“We have a Facebook circle with our school, and everyone recommends that place,” she said, referring to the Medivolve site. “I said, ‘Well, hold up. It’s the fastest, but it’s possibly the most inaccurate.’ The problem with that place is you can always get an appointment.”

(Editor’s note: The original online version of this story was updated to include responses from Medivolve’s attorney, and to clarify the role of Alcala Labs in the testing process.)

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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