With key firm poised to stop COVID-19 testing, CT looking for replacements

Photo of Mary Katherine Wildeman
Joel Urriola administers a COVID-19 test at the SEMA4 testing site in Rogers Park in Danbury.

Joel Urriola administers a COVID-19 test at the SEMA4 testing site in Rogers Park in Danbury.

H John Voorhees III / Hearst Connecticut Media

With two weeks to go until a key COVID-19 testing partner is due to withdraw its services, Connecticut’s Department of Public Health says it is still sorting out how the work will be replaced at 16 sites across the state.

State officials said they are not planning to pause operations at any testing sites as a result of the transition, which is scheduled to come at a critical time as demand for coronavirus testing has soared amid a new wave of infections driven by the highly-contagious omicron variant. However, officials said it’s possible some sites could move locations.

“At this time, there are no planned interruptions as part of the transition,” DPH spokesman Christopher Boyle said in an email Friday. “There is always a possibility a site could relocate within a town if that change will better meet the needs of the community.

Beginning in 2020, to help meet the demand for testing during the pandemic, the state government stood up about two dozen testing sites scattered throughout the state. It brought on lab contractors to handle processing those tests and collecting thousands of swabs from patients.

But in late December, the state’s top contractor for its testing sites, Stamford-based Sema4, which runs 16 of 25 state-backed sites, announced it will discontinue its COVID-19 line of business entirely by the end of this month.

Sema4’s withdrawal followed controversy over investments into the company by a venture capital firm co-founded by Annie Lamont, the governor’s wife. The issue was first reported in the Connecticut Mirror in November.

On Friday, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Health said the agency is developing a plan to fill the gap beyond Jan. 31, when Sema4 is due to stop its services.

State officials said they are in active talks with laboratories already contracted with the state, but they have not yet identified which company, or companies, will take over the 16 sites, the spokesman said.

The testing locations have processed tens of thousands of tests and are critical for some communities.

Municipal officials around the state, including in Norwalk, Hartford, Killingly and Plainfield, said they have been assured the sites will remain open but are waiting for more information from the state about the transition plan. And they’re keeping a close eye to ensure it goes smoothly.

In Kent, a small town hugging the border with New York, the Sema4 site is the only place to get a COVID-19 test for miles. Jean Speck, head of the town’s board of selectmen, said first responders and teachers around the region turn to the site at Kent’s transfer station for needed weekly testing. Some Kent residents, particularly the elderly, don’t have the option of driving 40 minutes or more to seek a COVID-19 test, Speck said.

"I'm doing everything I can to keep it open,” Speck said by phone Friday morning. “The only thing that would keep it from staying open is if DPH and, you know, the governor's office can't find a lab to come do the tests. I've told DPH that we will keep the site open for as long as they want us to keep the site open.”

As the omicron variant has caused an unprecedented spike in cases, traffic at the Kent testing center roughly quadrupled, she said. Volume has remained high enough that the town, Sema4 and the state recently agreed to add another day of testing each week.

While the personnel at the site work for a staffing agency, Speck said she is awaiting word from the state health agency about which laboratory can process the tests.

“They are diligently working on a transition plan to put a new lab partner in place,” Speck said, adding that both the state and Sema4 have been excellent partners.

Hartford officials said they’re in touch with state health officials and monitoring the process closely.

“Our hope and our goal is for a seamless transition to a new vendor who can continue to provide testing services to our community at the current location,” Liany Arroyo, director of Health and Human Services for the city of Hartford, said in a statement.

State officials said the vendors involved in discussions to take over Sema4’s work landed contracts with the state through open-bid processes during the spring and summer.

At least nine other organizations are contracted with the state to provide COVID-19 testing, according to the master contract on file with the state Department of Administrative Services. The state is contracted to pay up to $95 per molecular test, a price that includes the fees to collect and process the swabs.

Sema4 began COVID-19 testing in the spring of 2020, securing its first contract with the Connecticut Department of Public Health in late May, state records show.

The core of Sema4’s business is in genetic testing. The arrival of the coronavirus pandemic meant the firm’s usual testing volume dropped off, and Sema4 pivoted to begin offering COVID-19 tests, according to a recent disclosure to investors. In the first nine months of 2021, more than half of the diagnostic tests Sema4 processed in its lab were for COVID-19, according to the company’s filings with the Securities & Exchange Commission.

In mid-December, Sema4 first said it would discontinue its COVID-19 testing by mid-January; shortly after, the company agreed to continue until the end of January.

Sema4 in a statement said soon after the pandemic began in early 2020, labs nationwide were overwhelmed and struggled to meet testing turnaround times. So, the company said it “answered the call to enter the COVID-19 testing business.”

But, the company said, the situation is now very different. In Connecticut, and across the country, lab capacity has grown, vaccines and treatments are available along with more testing options. “We therefore believe now is the appropriate time to dedicate our resources to Sema4’s core mission,” the statement said.

The affect of Sema4’s departure on appointment availability and turnaround times remains to be seen.

In recent weeks, the state testing sites have together conducted about 25,000 tests, according to sites’ weekly averages the state Department of Public Health provided to Hearst Connecticut Media. Roughly two-thirds of that volume was handled by Sema4.

During the week between Christmas and New Year’s, Connecticut reported nearly 230,000 tests in total, a figure that includes testing at both state-run sites, like Sema4’s, and privately run locations, like at CVS and Walgreens, though the figure does not include at-home test kits.