SACRAMENTO (CBS13) – After months of denied interviewed requests and requests for information from public health officials, CBS13 turned to Governor Newsom for answers about continued problems at the state’s troubled $1.7 billion-dollar COVID testing lab.
THE COVID LAB: State Secrets Exposed
State inspectors found “significant deficiencies” during an inspection of the CDPH-PerkinElmer COVID lab in December, they investigated whistleblower allegations in February, and vowed to make the reports on both the inspection and the whistleblower investigation public in mid-March — but still haven’t.
Problems continued in April when more students returned to in-person school and districts began using the state COVID lab to process the required COVID tests for athletes.
When CBS13 asked the Governor about the ongoing lab concerns during his May Budget press tour, he said Dr. Ghaly would provide answers. It’s been two weeks and we’re still waiting — and so are parents.
Students Suffer Amid COVID Lab Concerns
As we’ve reported, the impact of problems at the state’s COVID testing lab are still being felt statewide.
In April, there were the delayed test results that forced some schools to cancel games and others to quarantine entire teams due to a positive player on the field.
The state’s $1.7 billion taxpayer-funded contract with PerkinElmer, to run the so-called Valencia Branch Lab (VBL), requires that they return results in under 48 hours. Some schools said they still hadn’t received results after a week.
The lab’s management blamed routine maintenance for the delays and the state appeared to take their word for it. However, CBS13 obtained internal emails between top lab management discussing a “contamination issue” that “halted production” that week.
The next week, a Southern California school district reported an “unprecedented number” of false positives from the state lab, which was later confirmed by the LA County Department of Public Health.
The same week, multiple Northern California school districts were forced to “close-contact” quarantine hundreds of healthy students following a spike in alleged positive results from the lab.
In many cases, parents and students told us they were forced to do independent study from home for two weeks because many districts weren’t prepared for widespread quarantines and did not have distance learning options in place after returning to full-time instruction.
The El Dorado Union School District reported a 1,000% increase in their positivity rate when they switched from a private lab to the state lab for testing. The most recent data provided by the state indicated the lab’s positivity rate was more than 60% higher than California’s overall positivity rate in February and March.
Following our reports, the state allowed at least one district to end its quarantine early. But now, some schools are advising seniors to work virtually for the rest of the year to avoid being quarantined for graduation.
Generally speaking, schools are concerned about kids being exposed to a positive case on campus. However, some parents worry, because their school uses the state lab, that their senior has an increased risk of being quarantined due to close contact with a false-positive case.
It’s still not clear how many California students may have been impacted by these issues with testing from the state lab.
When CBS13 asked the state for a list of schools that are participating in testing through the lab, CDPH provided a partial list of 28 schools and six districts. The list did not include any of the more than half-dozen schools and districts we’d heard from.
When we questioned the agency about the missing schools and districts, CDPH said some “may have been set up as community sites” but would not provide a list of those.
Delayed Inspection and Investigation Reports
In February, whistleblowers revealed allegations ranging from unlicensed lab techs, sleeping on the job, to incidents of contamination, swapped samples, and wrong results during the peak of the pandemic.
According to the state, the lab was facing an “immediate jeopardy” designation which denotes “the most severe and egregious threat to the health and safety.” The lab had until March 1st to respond and address the deficiencies.
ALSO READ: Regulators Find ‘Significant Deficiencies’ At CA COVID Testing Lab – Whistleblowers Respond
The state vowed to make the inspection report public by mid-March and told CBS13 it would release the findings of the whistleblower investigation at the same time. However, when CBS 13 asked for an update in April amid the school false positives, representatives from the California Department of Public Health said, “the investigation is ongoing.”
“If they haven’t fixed their problems, how are we supposed to trust them?” asked Michelle Peterson, a Roseville, CA mom.
“What’s taking so long?” said Todd Venneri, whose son uses the state lab in Placer County.
“We are due an explanation,” said Nevada Union Athletic Director Daniel Crossen.
Attempting To Get Answers
After Health Secretory Ghaly denied repeated interview requests and CDPH declined to answer our questions, CBS13 asked the Governor about the school testing concerns and the delayed reports during his May budget press tour — twice.
“Is there an update to that investigation and do you think it’s important for the public to hear the outcome of that investigation?” asked CBS13 reporter Steve Large during a one-on-one interview.
“There’s not only updates, those all were resolved,” the Governor replied.
The Governor implied that the allegations of problems were exaggerated and he seemed to believe that the report had already been released.
“We put it out a number of months ago,” he said.
A few hours later, CDPH denied our request for that report, reiterating in an email statement, that it was not complete :
“PerkinElmer, the contracted operator of the Valencia Branch Laboratory, has provided all requested information to CDPH’s Laboratory Field Services; the final report is being finalized and will be made public.”
So, we followed up the next day at the Governor’s May budget press conference, specifically asking about the testing problems at schools.
“School districts across the state have been forced to quarantine kids due to apparent false positives from the state’s COVID testing lab. Inspectors found “significant deficiencies” at the lab in December, investigated whistleblower allegations in February and your administration vowed to make the investigations public by March— but still hasn’t,” CBS13 Reporter Marissa Perlman summarized for the governor.
“Why won’t CDPH release the lab investigations? And should schools be using the state COVID lab in light of these problems?” she asked.
“Yes, they should, the Governor responded.
He seemed unaware of the recent problems with school testing, and claimed that all the problems at the lab had been fixed ” many, many, many months ago.”
“You’ll have an opportunity to talk to Dr. Ghaly and his representatives in a moment in more detail,” he added.
But that hasn’t happened.
We’ve reached out to Dr. Ghaly’s team several times via text and email since the May 14th press conference. Ghaly’s media representative pointed us to the previous statement from CDPH but did not acknowledge our repeated requests for an interview despite the Governor’s offer.
Meanwhile, concerned parents wait for answers, worried that faulty tests and mass quarantines could keep their kids out of school again in the fall.
Still Working to Get Answers
After CDPH stopped responding to the station’s requests for information, CBS 13 submitted multiple Public Records Act Requests and Freedom of Information Requests to the California Department of Public Health, the California Health and Human Services Agency, which oversees CDPH, and the Center For Medicare and Medicaid Services, which is the federal regulator of labs.
We expect to get the first batch of records in early June and we will keep working to get you answers.
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