By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — What would happen if a private lab offered the state a proven, faster, same-day COVID-19 test but found itself mired in Wisconsin Department of Health Services incompetence and red tape — while the coronavirus death count soared?
Would there be hell to pay?
That’s exactly what did happen to the owners and operators of Summit Clinical Laboratories in New Berlin, and a state lawmaker wants answers as to why.
Faisal Ahmed-Yahia, the clinic’s co-owner and director of sales and outreach, said the lab has been handling 600-700 COVID-19 tests daily at its two collection sites in Waukesha County and four sites in Milwaukee County. Results, without exception, come back the same day, often times within hours, contrary to the state-run testing sites that take several days to process COVID tests.
When the clinic’s testing launched in October, Ahmed-Yahia and his partners reached out to DHS. Health bureaucrats were more than glad to include the clinic in the daily online COVID-19 capacity counts, but they wouldn’t approve Summit to be part of the DHS COVID Connect network and serve as a state-sanctioned testing lab. Summit missed the summer enrollment period, DHS officials told Ahmed-Yahia. Perhaps there would be another “round of applications in January or later,” DHS’ Alana Sterkel wrote in an email to Summit in early November.
Remember, this bureaucratic rejection came as communicable disease experts warned of a surge in COVID-19 cases moving into the fall and holiday months. And DHS couldn’t squeeze into its network a rapid-test lab. Not because of any problems with Summit. Ahmed-Yahia said the lab and its testing sites have all of the proper certificates and credentials in order.
As coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths escalated in November to 7,000 to 8,000 cases a day, Summit officials checked back in with DHS.
“We said, ‘We know you are overwhelmed with testing. Let us take your high-risk people. We’ll get same-day results,’” Ahmed-Yahia said.
DHS effectively said, ‘No thanks. We’ve got this. We’ve got it all under control.’
But the agency didn’t have things under control. It was forced to send tests to out-of-state labs instead of availing itself to the private New Berlin-based lab boasting same-day results — a lab that employs 45 Wisconsinites and, among other clients, does COVID-19 testing for Milwaukee County’s jails.
On a conference call Summit had with Waukesha County, DHS Nurse consultant
Rebecca Claeys informed Ahmed-Yahia and others that she was in charge of adding people to the Covid Connect system.
“We asked if we could please be added and she said, that probably wouldn’t be possible because adding us would take ‘heavy lifting’ on her end,” Ahmed-Yahia said.
Last week, DHS Senior Purchasing Agent J. Michael Juarez told Ahmed-Yahia that the “team” didn’t think it was the right time to let Summit in.
“I’ve spoken to the team and unfortunately it isn’t feasible at this time,” Juarez wrote in a Feb. 8 email. “However, as with all things COVID related, the testing ‘landscape’ is constantly shifting, so we’ll be sure to reach out should the situation change.”
“It’s so frustrating and it doesn’t make sense,” Ahmed-Yahia said. “And it’s sad. People are dying. For some IT person to say they can’t connect us into the system, it’s a joke.”
People are dying. Did they die unnecessarily because of DHS’ stubborn refusal to bring Summit Clinical into the system to quickly identify more COVID cases.
As critics have railed, COVID tests results days in the making are virtually worthless. Not everyone is going to quarantine for several days waiting for test results. DHS could have done something about that, Ahmed-Yahia said, through the simple act of connecting with a same-day testing lab.
But long lines and long result times continue to plague state COVID-19 test collection sites, including the Waukesha Exposition Center, not far from Summit’s testing sites at Malone Park in New Berlin and a secondary site in Delafield.
A DHS spokeswoman did not return Empower Wisconsin’s request for comment.
Meanwhile, Summit continues to expand. Ahmed-Yahia said the lab has the capacity to do 3,500 test a day without adding another shift. It is working with some Milwaukee County schools on testing agreements.
“We have 2,000 extra tests we could do a day with the same-day results,” he said.
Frustrated, Summit’s co-owners turned to state Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-New Berlin). Sanfelippo said it’s up to the Legislature to put pressure on DHS and make the agency with the “good enough” motto do better by the people of Wisconsin.
“The best thing they can do, they don’t do,” Sanfelippo said of DHS’ failure to work with a lab that’s providing same-day COVID-19 test results.
“It goes to show you the whole different thinking between the private sector and the government. The private sector is always striving to do better. The government does what they think is good enough. That sums up the Evers administration on the way they’ve handled unemployment, the vaccination rollout and so many other things.”