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Troubled CA COVID Lab Returns Fewer Than 1 Out Of 5 Results Within Required 48hrs During Omicron Surge

SACRAMENTO (CBS13) — California's amended budget bill continues to fund the state's troubled PerkinElmer COVID testing lab, as the lab continues to fail to fulfill the mandates in its recently renewed $1.7-billion no-bid state contract.

The California Department of Public Health's (CDPH) Testing Turnaround Time records reveal that, as the Omicron variant surged during the week of January 9th, the state lab processed fewer than one out of five tests within the required 48-hour turn-around time while commercial competitors processed more tests in a fraction of the time.

Tens of thousands of Californians had to wait five or more days for their results from the troubled state COVID lab in January, which for some meant they didn't get their results until after the CDC's 5-day quarantine period was over.

The state's PerkinElmer testing lab has been the subject of a year-long CBS13 investigation, which prompted state and federal investigations that confirmed everything from contamination concerns to wrong results to hidden lab errors.

CBS13's first whistleblower report on the lab aired one year ago Monday, the day lawmakers passed the revised budget which allocates more than $217 million in continued funding related to the state COVID lab, which is known as the Valencia Branch Lab (VBL).

"It's been a complete fiasco," state Republican Leader Scott Wilk said on the Senate floor Monday.

Wilk was among the dissenting opinions as lawmakers voted on California's latest revised budget bill. Wilk didn't oppose the budget, rather he opposed continued funding of the state's no-bid COVID lab contract with PerkinElmer, which was quietly renewed last year amid ongoing state and federal investigations.

"I just don't believe in rewarding bad behavior," Wilk added.

Prompted by the CBS13 whistleblower investigation, both state and federal investigators inspected the lab. They confirmed the whistleblower allegations, finding lab practices posed "immediate jeopardy to patient health and safety" and were "likely to cause serious injury, harm or death."

Yet, the state waited nearly a year to disclose the findings as it hid the continued risk from the public and renewed the lab's no-bid contract while the investigations were ongoing.

State regulators claim those issues are now fixed, but state records reveal that other problems continue.

For instance, PerkinElmer's contract requires that the lab return COVID-19 results to patients in under 48 hours. However,  as the Omicron variant surged in January and kids returned to school from winter break, the state's PerkinElmer lab returned fewer than 1 out of 5 results on time.

For perspective, a similar-sized lab, SummerBio, which specializes in school testing, processed 94% of results within 24 hours that same week.

But maybe more concerning, tens of thousands of Californians didn't get their results from the state lab, as Omicron peaked, until after their required quarantined period was over.

CBS13 asked the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) if there was an incident at the lab that caused the excessive delays. In response, an unnamed agency representative stated, "Testing turnaround times varied due to the demand for tests during the latest surge in COVID cases."

However, as we pointed out to the anonymous CDPH spokesperson, the lab only processed an average of roughly 52,000 tests per day during this period. The PerkinElmer lab is contractually obligated to process three times that number in under 48 hours.

The unnamed rep did not respond when we asked why the lab was unable to process 52,000 tests per day in under 48 hours.

Wilk recently announced that he is working on two pieces of legislation related to the lab and the CBS13 investigation. We'll have more on that legislation in the coming days.

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