The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) is launching an investigation into whistleblower allegations of misconduct at a COVID-19 testing laboratory, according to a February 10 AP News article.
The allegations, which were revealed by Sacramento-based news outlet CBS13 on February 8, detailed misconduct at the recently constructed COVID-19 testing laboratory in Valencia, California. Whistleblowers came forward and alleged that there were unqualified and unlicensed staff members working at the facility who were conducting tests for patients. Other whistleblowers sent CBS13 photos and videos of lab technicians sleeping and watching videos while tests were being processed. The whistleblowers alleged that “a lack of qualified lab techs, a lack of qualified supervisors and constantly changing testing protocols” contributed to the systemic problems at the laboratory. CBS13 also acquired quality control reports that detailed issues like mixing up patient samples and issuing incorrect results.
The allegations sparked a swift response from local legislators. “As the Vice-Chair of the Senate Health Committee I find the allegations regarding the failures at the State’s new, billion dollar, COVID lab concerning and downright shameful,” California State Senator Melissa Melendez (R-Lake Elsinore) wrote in a February 9 press release. “Millions of Californians rely on the accuracy of these tests. The mistreatment of COVID test samples jeopardizes the health and safety of over 40 million Californians. Considering the lack of transparency surrounding the ‘science’ that is the basis for the stay at home orders and for shutting down businesses, I hope the administration and the California Department of Public Health come forward with real answers to what is happening at our testing facilities.”
“I will be calling for a full investigation into this matter and hope my majority party colleagues in the State Senate will join me in this search for the truth behind these allegations,” Sen. Melendez concluded in her statement.
Tomas Aragon, the director of CDPH, gave a statement to lawmakers on February 8, according to the AP News article. “The state is taking this very seriously and we’re looking into the allegations,” Aragon said. However, AP noted that “he didn’t respond to any specific allegations or offer a timeline for the investigation.”
In a February 8 follow-up article by CBS13, the news outlet wrote that hours before the first article was published, they received “dozens of additional quality control reports describing incidents of contamination, swapped samples, and repeated errors that, whistleblowers say, could impact patients’ test results.” CBS13 also “received new evidence related to staff competency requirements including a copy of the lab’s ‘competency tracker’ database.” The database “indicated there were hundreds of lab employees that had still not been signed off for competency, in one or more areas, as of the end of January,” the article states.
CSB13 also reported that the day the initial article was published, whistleblowers informed the news outlet that employees were brought into work and instructed “to alter competency records, citing the ‘CBS report.’” CDPH then responded and “called the allegations outrageous and unsubstantiated, accusing CBS13 of irresponsible journalism.” However, a spokesperson from the California Health and Human Services Agency (CHHS), which oversees CDPH, provided a statement that had a different tone.
“We are troubled by these allegations against our laboratory vendor and its employees and will investigate them immediately and thoroughly. If these claims are substantiated, they would represent a clear violation of our existing agreement with PerkinElmer and we would take swift action to fix these issues, up to and including termination of the contract,” said Kate Folmar, the CHHS spokesperson.
CBS13 later interviewed Folmar, who provided more insight into how CHHS has responded to the allegations. “Obviously, we take these allegations of wrongdoing at the lab we run with our vendor, PerkinElmer, very seriously,” Folmar said. PerkinElmer is a “major diagnostics company” that the California government partnered with in the testing lab’s creation.
PerkinElmer also responded to CBS13 after the initial article about the whistleblower allegations in a statement. “PerkinElmer and the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) have worked closely together on serving the citizens of California with the COVID-19 testing laboratory in Valencia. PerkinElmer seeks to operate at the highest of standards at all of our laboratories while ensuring the utmost safety and quality,” the statement reads.
“At the Valencia laboratory, dedicated individuals at both PerkinElmer and CDPH have worked extremely hard to open the facility and ramp up testing over the past several months in order to meet the State’s testing demands,” the statement continued. “We take any complaints or allegations of wrongdoing seriously and are fully cooperating with California to investigate the issues raised on your segment last night and will continue to be fully transparent with CDPH on any concerns they have.”