See more of the story

Two companies that collected nasal swabs but allegedly failed to provide timely or accurate COVID-19 test results are being sued by the state of Minnesota.

State Attorney General Keith Ellison said the Illinois-based companies Center for COVID Control and Doctors Clinical Laboratory took advantage of Minnesotans' urgency to seek COVID-19 tests during the latest pandemic wave and rise of the omicron variant.

"I'm holding these companies accountable that sent back false or inaccurate results, when they sent them back at all, for deceiving Minnesotans and undermining the public's trust in testing," Ellison said Wednesday.

Testing has been at a premium this month — with many people fearing they had COVID-19 because of symptoms or viral exposures and others needing to check if they were infection-free before going to work, school or travel destinations. The seven-day rolling average of tests was more than 63,000 per day on Jan. 12 — exceeding the record during a severe pandemic wave last winter before vaccine was available.

Record testing also revealed record infections. The positivity rate of COVID-19 testing rose to 23.2% in the seven-day period ending Jan. 8. Minnesota on Wednesday reported another 44,626 infections that were identified over the long holiday weekend and 37 COVID-19 deaths. Minnesota has reached almost 1.2 million infections and 11,037 deaths in the pandemic.

The Center for COVID Control opened several pop-up sites in Minnesota as testing demand was peaking — offering free same-day rapid antigen tests and PCR results within 72 hours. Former employees described chaos as the sites collected more samples than the company's lab could process.

One employee described specimens stuffed in trash bags and strewn across an office floor, according to the lawsuit. Others reportedly found bags of specimens that were more than 48 hours old, and said they were instructed to falsify receipt dates and lie to consumers, telling them their unprocessed specimens had come back as negative.

Hannah Puffer of Plymouth said she was patient when her test result didn't come back in the promised same-day period last week, because she knew the omicron variant created an overwhelming demand. The long line at a nearby state site had caused her to seek testing elsewhere in the first place. But she never received her result.

Edward Hugener of Minneapolis said he went to a site on Hiawatha Avenue with his 12-year-old daughter on Dec. 29 and left because it was so disorganized. Workers were stressed and rude, he said, and calling out test results to people who were waiting while others were within earshot.

Hugener said he didn't submit a sample but received an e-mail that night saying his test result was negative. He received another e-mail the next day indicating that his daughter had taken a test that day — when she was at school — and that she was also negative.

"I know what shady looks like and this is it," Hugener said.

The lawsuit seeks an injunction from future deceptions and restitution for people who didn't receive timely and accurate tests. The companies are separate but related, with the Center for COVID Control collecting tests at its sites and Doctors Clinical Laboratory processing PCR test results, said Jason Pleggenkuhle, a manager in the Minnesota attorney general's consumer division.

The lawsuit alleges the companies collected insurance information but mostly sought federal reimbursement, even when test recipients were insured. Doctors Clinical Laboratory has billed the government $113 million for tests for the uninsured in the U.S., the lawsuit states.

The Center for COVID Control suspended its testing from Jan. 14 through Saturday, stating demand was overwhelming and it needed to retrain staff.

"Regrettably, due to our rapid growth and the unprecedented recent demand for testing, we haven't been able to meet all our commitments," said Aleya Siyaj, founder and chief executive.

People should continue to seek COVID-19 tests but rely on clinicians or reputable sites on the state's pandemic website, said Dan Huff, assistant commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Health.

Testing is a "vital tool" that alerts people to treatments they need or actions they need to take to prevent viral spread, Huff said. "It depends on a network of partners in the public and private sectors and it's very important that people have confidence … in the tests that we get."

Limited supplies prompted St. Cloud-based CentraCare and Bloomington-based HealthPartners last week to reserve testing only for their patients or people with COVID-19 symptoms. Sioux Falls-based Sanford Health likewise asked people with viral exposures to ease the demand by refraining from testing for five days and then using at-home tests.

Demand for testing might be ebbing, though, with appointments available next week at free Minnesota sites such as the the Minneapolis Convention Center, which was full last week. Home rapid antigen tests have been in short supply, but the federal government this week debuted a website people can use to obtain four per household.

The decline in testing might be occurring amid a peak in the latest COVID-19 pandemic wave. Mayo Clinic modeling predicts the wave of infections will peak in Minnesota on Jan. 26, while the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Washington state projects that a peak already has occurred.

Sampling of sewage at the Metro Wastewater Treatment Plant in Bloomington has found declining evidence of the virus since Jan. 6.