President Joe Biden Jan. 4 advised citizens to “Google ‘COVID test near me’” and “go there” if they need to be tested in the face of the surging omicron variant.
For many who followed those instructions in Mountain View or Los Altos last week, within the first five results was “Free COVID Testing Mountain View,” located at 821 W. El Camino Real. The website and on-site signs direct visitors to the “Center for Covid Control.” Its website cites it as “partnered with CDC approved & licensed laboratory,” but the location appears to have neither a business license nor a clear link to the national organization with which it claims affiliation. As of Jan. 12, the location was still operating.
After hearing reports of a suspicious testing site, the Town Crier reached out to local municipalities and public health organizations to confirm the center’s status and licensing. Initially, nearly every organization directed the inquiry to another agency or department. A Town Crier reporter contacted Santa Clara County Public Health, the Santa Clara County District Attorney, the city of Mountain View, the Mountain View Police Department and the California Department of Public Health.
Both health departments directed the Town Crier to local law enforcement and the District Attorney’s Office to report fraud. The DA’s Office referred the Town Crier to the Mountain View Police Department. The MVPD did not initially respond to requests for more information until the Town Crier inquired about the business’ license.
The city of Mountain View confirmed that there was no business license under the name or address. City officials informed the Town Crier in an email that “there may be several regulatory or governmental agencies involved in determining the legality of the Center for Covid Control’s operations.”
After nearly 55 minutes on hold, the Town Crier reached a representative for the Center for Covid Control by phone, who asserted that the organization has no locations in California. According to reporting from Newsweek, the Better Business Bureau is also investigating the Center for Covid Control in multiple jurisdictions.
The Google reviews for the Center for Covid Control are – mostly – terrible. Some report extremely delayed test results, while others complain about waiting in long lines only to have staff send them away without administering a test. N.L., a Mountain View resident interviewed by the Town Crier who asked to use her initials for privacy reasons, was tested at the El Camino site Dec. 30. She didn’t receive her results until 12 days later, at which point they were effectively useless for her family.
N.L. reported waiting in line for an hour and 45 minutes with her three children to test all four them. She said her experience inside the testing site was relatively positive despite the long wait. Three lab technicians brought in no more than four people at a time to swab themselves with a choice of either or both PCR and antigen tests. When cleaning up between parties, she said, the center did “the most thorough job (of cleaning between parties) that I’ve seen at all the (testing) sites.”
One lingering question remained, however: What did the organization do with her information? While in line, N.L. followed staff instructions to access an online intake form via text message. The form directs to yet another organization, United Diagnostic Labs and unityphr.com, neither of which has any clear link to the El Camino location. The form asked for her name, date of birth, address and demographic information along with a photo of her driver’s license.
N.L. also recalled receiving a code from the intake form that the staff never needed.
“That should have been a red flag for me,” she said, but she had already been isolated from her kids for two days out of an abundance of caution and had waited in line for two hours.
Health officials say the best way to find a free, reliable COVID test is to check with local government or health-care systems.
For a list of officially recognized testing sites and more information, visit covid19.sccgov.org/covid-19-testing.