California COVID lab scandal highlights need for whistleblowers in the age of COVID

by Nick Younger, Communications Associate

Published on March 19, 2021

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California COVID lab scandal highlights need for whistleblowers in the age of COVID

A recent investigation by CBS13 Sacramento into an abnormally high number of inconclusive COVID-19 tests results from California’s new COVID testing lab unearthed waves of allegations from whistleblowers working in the lab regarding contaminants, undertrained and underqualified staff, gross negligence and more.

California’s new $25 million lab and $1.7 billion contract with PerkinElmer, the company managing the site, slated them to process up to 150,000 COVID tests a day with results returning within 24 to 48 hours. According to data acquired by CBS13, the lab was processing an average of “fewer than 20,000 tests a day, but according to the state, is being paid the contracted rate for 100,000 tests per day.”

According to data from the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), the rate of “inconclusives” for the lab is seven and a half times higher than the other 22 California COVID labs combined, with one out of every 34 results coming back inconclusive compared to the state’s average of one out of every 256 results.

Initially, state health officials stated the inconclusive tests were due to lack of chemical reactions with CBS13 even obtaining quality control reports corroborating that explanation. However, upon further pressure, CDPH said the type of test used by PerkinElmer explains the higher-than-normal rate – according to CDPH these tests could detect lower levels of viral load and when lower levels are detected they are reported as inconclusive. Data provided to CBS13 by CDPH indicated that, in three months, more than 50,000 tests came back inconclusive. Shortly after these stories broke, whistleblowers began to reach out to CBS13.

Whistleblowers interviewed by the station spoke about systemic issues in the lab, noting that contamination, constantly changing protocols, and unlicensed and inadequately trained staff were responsible for the high rate of inconclusive tests. Providing CBS13 with dozens of quality control reports, whistleblowers were able to highlight the unsanitary facilities, swapped samples and repeated errors that plagued the lab. Errors such as swapped samples resulted in dozens of results being sent out incorrectly, while quality control reports additionally indicated that no system was in place to notify patients of incorrect test results.

According to state data obtained by CBS13, “205 samples were lost or spilled between November and January,” with additional emails revealing that lab management asked supervisors to “re-train team members” months into the job. Oftentimes, in the lab, unlicensed lab technicians left swabs in restrooms and slept on the job. CBS13 notes that one of the most concerning pieces of evidence obtained from the whistleblowers were emails from management “indicating that lab techs had been processing patient samples before completing required training modules or getting signed-off for competency.”

In February, state regulators investigated the whistleblower allegations revealed in CBS13’s investigatory work, finding “significant deficiencies” at the state lab. However, shortly after CBS13 requested information on new evidence from the state, whistleblowers alleged that the lab told employees to come in on Super Bowl Sunday “to alter competency records, citing the ‘CBS report.’” Now, PerkinElmer is suing the one public whistleblower, Dr. Manahz Salem, alongside 25 other unnamed defendants, according to CBS13.

California’s state lab scandal highlights not only the need for whistleblowers to stand up in defense of public health and safety, but also the need for their ensured protections. Denials and retaliatory investigations are a common move in the fraudster’s rulebook. Whether it is guaranteed confidentiality provisions, avenues to safely report wrongdoing or anti-retaliation protections, whistleblowers need our help. As noted by CBS13, the one thing all the whistleblowers had in common was “they wanted the public to know what’s actually happening inside your state lab.”

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