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