A COVID-19 testing site is seen operating on Harlem Avenue on Friday, Jan. 14, 2022, in Riverside. Alex Rogals | Staff photographer

With the rise of COVID-19, so too came the rise of the free pop-up testing site. Offering free tests with a quick turnaround for results, the testing sites have become increasingly ubiquitous. And despite using names that would imply otherwise, the testing sites are often run by people with limited, if any, medical experience or training.

Worse yet, local and state health departments have effectively zero authority over the sites to ensure the operations run efficiently. Although the sites consistently promise a quick turnaround of test results, some patients have waited weeks to receive theirs. Others are still waiting.

“I still have never received the results and never received an explanation for why I haven’t received the results,” said Jane Sutphen of Oak Park, one of many people who shared a negative testing experience with Growing Community Media.

Sutphen got tested Dec. 8 at a pop-up site in a strip mall storefront at 6325 W. North Ave. in Oak Park. When she went, the site was operating under the name of Northshore Clinical Labs, which Sutphen thought was a subset of NorthShore University Health System. In actuality, the Northshore Clinical Labs has no affiliation with the hospital group. Sutphen now believes the lab’s name intentionally misleading.

“I think they’re doing it to deceive,” said Sutphen.

She said the site itself was unsanitary and that staff were not at all strict about masking. Sutphen filed a complaint with the Oak Park Public Health Department but learned that COVID-19 testing sites are out of its jurisdiction.

Likewise, the Cook County Department of Public Health and even the Illinois Department of Public Health have no regulatory control over the sites, which operate under a variety of names, including Center for Covid Control, Covid Center of Chicago, Free Covid Testing Site and Northshore Clinical Labs.

The names of labs also sometimes change. A reporter visiting the North Avenue site Sutphen used found it empty and padlocked, with sign on the glass door that had a variety of company names, including Grapefruit Health and PSK Clinics.

Signage is seen on the front door of a recently closed COVID-19 testing facility on Friday, Jan. 14, 2022, in Oak Park. Alex Rogals | Staff photographer

Warning issued

Last week, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul cautioned residents thinking about using pop-up test sites, saying his office “cannot confirm the legitimacy of individual pop-up testing locations.”

“The increased need for testing has also resulted in testing shortages, leading people to visit so-called ‘pop-up’ testing locations,” Raoul said in the statement. “It is important for people to know that these sites are not licensed or regulated by a government agency, and they should ask questions before visiting a pop-up testing location – or try to utilize a state-sponsored testing site.”

Following an inquiry by Growing Community Media late last week, the Center for Covid Control announced that it was temporarily shutting down all of its locations, including its sites at 9219 Broadway Ave. in Brookfield, 1527 Harlem Ave. in Forest Park and 200 N. Oak Park Ave. in Oak Park.

The company said the temporary shutdown, which was to last through Jan. 22, was due to the operational strain from customer demand.

“Regrettably, due to our rapid growth and the unprecedented recent demand for testing, we haven’t been able to meet all our commitments,” said Center for Covid Control founder and CEO Aleya Siyaj in a press release.

In her LinkedIn profile online, Siyaj lists herself as CEO of BullsEye Axe Throwing Lounge in Barrington Hills. She also previously served as CEO of a donut company.

The company’s announcement also coincided with news reported Jan. 14 by USA Today that Center for Covid Control’s primary lab partner was under investigation by a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in the wake of other investigations undertaken by the Oregon Department of Justice and the Better Business Bureau.

A closed COVID-19 testing site on North Avenue is seen on Friday, Jan. 14, 2022, in Oak Park. Alex Rogals | Staff photographer

Bad reviews

People who have been tested at pop-up sites told Growing Community Media had a variety of reactions to their visits, from believing staff were overwhelmed to feeling scammed by a get-rich-quick scheme. There was consensus, however, among those who shared their experiences: Each said they would not recommend that others utilize pop-up testing locations.

The city of Berwyn terminated its contract with Northshore Clinical Labs in 2020 due to the company’s failure to deliver test results to patients. Northshore Clinical Labs conducted two Berwyn community testing events prior to its dismissal.

“Their inability to provide test results in a timely manner and in the prescribed timeline they had agreed to, left me no choice but to leave North Shore Testing and seek other testing labs,” Berwyn Emergency Management Coordinator Tony J. Laureto wrote in a statement dated Dec. 7.

Northshore Clinical Labs is connected to other pop-up testing sites in Oak Park, Forest Park and North Riverside, sometimes operating under the Free Covid Testing Site (FCTS) name.

Ramona Ramos-Sullivan and her husband only just received their results Jan. 10, after getting tested Christmas Eve at the Northshore Clinical Labs location operating out of the former CVS Pharmacy at 216 Circle Ave. in Forest Park.

“I tried calling the lab several times, and nobody answers,” Ramos-Sullivan said. “It just kept ringing.”

Gregory Palivos, the managing partner of that Northshore location, did not return Growing Community Media’s request for comment.

Jane Brencic went to a Northshore/FCTS testing site in a pod set up in the parking lot of the North Riverside Park Mall, 7501 Cermak Road, on Dec. 21 because it was offering drive-up testing.

She got both a rapid test and a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, the latter of which takes longer to process. While her rapid test came back negative, she was told she would receive the results of her PCR results within five days. Brencic received her negative PCR result a full 15 days after being tested.

The site has since closed. A visit to the site on Jan. 14 found the signage taken down and left folded up inside.

Brencic’s husband, Dave, had a similar experience with a Northshore/FCTS site at 321A S. Harlem Ave. in Forest Park. He received his PCR test result 13 days after his nasal cavity was swabbed.

“People are really desperate to find a place to get a result,” said Dave Brencic.

Growing Community Media has reached out to Muhammad Khan, the managing partner of the 321A S. Harlem Ave. testing site, for comment.

Northshore/FCTS also operates the site at 2704 Harlem Ave. in Riverside, which was still seeing clients as of Jan. 14. The name of the company on a 2022 business license application for 2704 Harlem Ave., obtained by Growing Community Media through a public records request, was Northwest Testing LLC.

The manager of that company is listed by the Illinois Secretary of State’s Office as Syed Bilgrami of Gilberts, Illinois.

Hasnain Bligrami, an apparent relative of Syed Bligrami, refers to himself as the “small business owner” of Northwest Testing on his LinkedIn page.

The contact person listed on the Riverside business license application is “Hass” with an email address referring to a company called Elite Testing which is also managed by Syed Bilgrami, according to Illinois Secretary of State records.

The actual 2022 business license on file with the village of Riverside refers to the 2704 Harlem Ave. business as “Center for Covid Control.”

It is unclear whether the testing site is still affiliated with Center for Covid Control, but Hass Bilgrami was that company’s spokesman when the pop-up site first opened at that location in May 2021.

The site at 2704 Harlem Avenue and the recently shuttered one at the North Riverside Park Mall are connected. The company applying for a business license in North Riverside last year was Northshore Clinical Lab, according to records obtained by Growing Community Media on file with the village. Syed Bilgrami is listed as the “manager” of the company in the application.

Hass Bilgrami did not respond to attempts to reach him. Neither Syed nor Hass Bilgrami had backgrounds in medical testing prior to their involvement in the pop-up sites, according to their personal LinkedIn pages.

Syed Bilgrami formerly worked as an account executive for Comcast and for a T-Mobile retailer. Hass Bilgrami worked as an account executive for Verizon and owns a boat rental company.

While many of the pop-up sites that sprang up last fall have closed or have paused operations due to an avalanche of complaints and heightened scrutiny, some municipalities have been able to shut down sites, which can operate after obtaining a certificate from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The village of Oak Park successfully shut one down on Dec. 30, but only was able to because it was operating without a business license. Called Covid Centers of Chicago while in business, the testing site was located in storefront previously occupied by Snow White dry cleaners at 40 W. Chicago Ave.

On top of not having a business license, the site’s proprietor, Zafar Hussain, was slapped with 15 other citations for several safety infractions, including failure to maintain heat, failure to maintain water supply in washrooms and failure to remove chemicals from the dry cleaning plant. Hussain’s hearing with the village is scheduled for Jan. 20.