Maryland orders Prince George’s lab without proper certification to stop doing coronavirus tests

By Ian Duncan,

The Maryland Health Department has ordered a Prince George’s lab that had been processing coronavirus specimens collected at pop-up clinics to cease operations, saying the facility does not have the proper certification.

Maryland Health Secretary Robert R. Neall issued an order Saturday requiring Advanced Pain Medicine Institute, which has offices in Greenbelt, to immediately stop all collection and processing of coronavirus tests.

The order was issued after the department received a complaint about test sites operated in coordination with the lab, the state said in a news release. An investigation determined the lab did not have the proper certification to perform coronavirus tests. It also found some patients had problems obtaining their test results.

According to the state, the lab conducted coronavirus testing at several sites recently, including Church of Philippi, in Hanover, on June 6; Southern Baptist Church, in Baltimore, on June 13; and Bilingual Christian Church, in Baltimore, on June 16.

The state warned anyone who received tests at any of these events that the results may be erroneous and encouraged them to consider getting another test. Anyone with coronavirus symptoms should seek medical attention, the state said.

The state also suspended the Advanced Pain Medicine Institute’s license to operate a medical lab and perform any lab testing.

“The Maryland Department of Health’s primary concern is the health and safety of Marylanders,” Neall said in a statement. “Until Advanced Pain Medicine Institute demonstrates that it is in full compliance with the Code of Maryland Regulations, it must cease all COVID-19 specimen collection and processing.”

The state’s order requires the lab to inform everyone it tested about the possibility their test results might be wrong and to provide information about everyone it tested to the state.

Reza Ghorbani, president and medical director of Advanced Pain Medicine Institute, said he has tested some 1,000 people in a partnership with the state’s Korean community and churches serving immigrants and minorities in Baltimore City and Howard and Anne Arundel counties.

Ghorbani said in an interview Sunday that he was still trying to understand the basis for the order and was cooperating with the state.

“We’re trying to get to the bottom of it,” he said. “At this moment, I don’t know exactly what has happened.”

[Maryland expanded coronavirus testing for asymptomatic people in May]

The tests conducted as part of the project represent a small fraction of the more than 630,000 tests that Maryland officials say have been done in the state. The virus has sickened a confirmed 66,777 people in the state, by The Washington Post’s count, and killed 3,168. Minority communities like those targeted by Ghorbani’s testing program have been especially hard hit.

Ghorbani has been practicing in the Washington area since 2007, according to the clinic’s website. He graduated from Tufts University’s medical school and trained at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, according to state records. The only disciplinary action on his record is a $1,000 fine in 2016 for dispensing prescription medicine on an expired permit.

Even though Ghorbani’s background is in the treatment of pain, he said that when he saw how people were struggling to get access to tests as the coronavirus spread, he thought he could use his lab to help.

“I decided to give back to the community,” he said.

A Korean community group that was concerned that Asian Americans were not getting tested contacted Ghorbani, and they began working together to hold the pop-up clinics at churches earlier this month. The community group managed the logistics on the ground, while Ghorbani said he took responsibility for providing and processing the tests themselves.

The state’s order was issued as the group was about to start a testing clinic outside Bethel Korean Presbyterian Church in Ellicott City on Saturday.

The Howard County Health Department ultimately allowed the clinic to use 250 of its tests, which will be processed by LabCorp, a county spokeswoman said Sunday. But Julian Min, a spokesman for the Korean group, said that Ghorbani had provided a larger number of tests and that some people had to be turned away.

At the clinic at the Southern Baptist Church in East Baltimore, about 165 people were tested, according to church leader Donte Hickman. He said those tested included himself and his family.

“We were proud to have been asked to facilitate covid-19 tests in our community,” Hickman said. But on Sunday morning, he was in the process of getting word out to people who attended to let them know they might want to get retested.

[Maryland’s Gov. Hogan secured testing kits from South Korea but they weren’t used right away]

Hickman said that he and his family planned to get retested and that he hoped the state’s order would ultimately lead to more resources being put toward testing and contact tracing in underserved communities.

Angel Nunez, leader of the Bilingual Christian Church in Baltimore, said some people who attended the clinic there had trouble getting results, and about 50 had already been retested. But he was planning to do interviews with Spanish-language news media about the state’s order to ensure the word got out.

“We’re taken aback because everything was done in a professional manner,” Nunez said.

Representatives of Church of Philippi could not be reached Sunday.

Ghorbani and Min acknowledged that some people might have had trouble getting their results, as the state said in its order, but they attributed that to handwritten records that were hard to read or immigrant patients who were unwilling to share identifying information.

“Human error. It happens once in a while. Nothing’s 100 percent,” Ghorbani said.

Ghorbani also said he had been submitting his test results to the state and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“They have all that information,” he said.

Ghorbani said the lab is certified under the federal laboratory law, which a CDC database reflects. But in the Maryland order, Neall wrote that it was stopping the lab’s activities because of concerns about potentially unvalidated tests and “the lack of a laboratory medical director.”

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