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Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich: Sonora Quest Wasn’t Honest About COVID-19 Tests

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich has accused a major lab of lying to consumers about their COVID-19 tests.

Brnovich said Sonora Quest wasn’t honest about how quickly people would get their results back.

In a letter, the attorney general's office claimed Sonora Quest, which processes most of the state's tests, failed to deliver on several promises about its testing backlog.

In late July, the lab had a backlog of 60,000 tests, but the company's website said active testing was being reported in less than 24 hours for hospital customers and within two to three days for most others.

Brnovich’s office alleges the lab frequently took nine days to process tests, violating the state’s Consumer Fraud Act.

There was no immediate response from Sonora Quest's attorney or public relations firm.

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: For weeks, Arizonans reported long waits to get a COVID-19 test and even longer waits to get the results. Public health officials have said time and again that getting those results quickly is key to slowing the spread of the virus, allowing those infected to isolate before potentially passing the virus to others. A backlog of tens of thousands of tests at the Sonora Quest lab was part of the problem. And now Attorney General Mark Brnovich is accusing the lab of lying to consumers about how quickly that backlog would be cleared and results returned. In late July, the lab had a backlog of 60,000 tests, but the company's website said active testing was being reported in less than 24 hours for hospital customers and within two to three days for most others. Brnovich alleges the lab frequently took much longer, violating the state's Consumer Fraud Act. In a statement, a spokesperson for Sonora Quest denied that allegation, said the lab is now returning results within three days after clearing the backlog. And Attorney General Brnovich is with us to tell us more. Mark, good morning.

MARK BRNOVICH: Good morning, everyone.

GOLDSTEIN: So what do you make of Sonora Quest denying the allegation it violate the Consumer Fraud Act? Have you received anything more from them since you've said what you've said?

BRNOVICH: We have not, but they do have until 5 p.m. today to send us a written confirmation that they've complied with the cease-and-desist order. And we do know — and you alluded to this at the beginning — that consumers and health care providers have to be given accurate, truthful information about wait times in order to make informed decisions, in order to slow or stop the spread of the virus. So this is a urgent public health issue. And I don't care who the businesses, who they know, who they're buddies with — it doesn't matter. Testing turnaround times are incredibly important and we have to hold those accountable who we allege make misrepresentations.

GOLDSTEIN: Mark, what can you accomplish or can you accomplish something on a legal end, but also in sending a message?

BRNOVICH: Both, Steve. It really is both because anyone that misrepresents testing capabilities undercuts contact tracing. It frustrates consumers. People can't change their behavior. They can't notify others. They've been affected. We all know that we need more testing. We need accurate testing. And we need timely testing. And so, when you have a company that literally has been given millions of dollars of state contracts, literally is doing press releases with other public officials touting what they're doing and they're not delivering, they have to be held accountable not only to deter or stop their contact, but also to send a strong message to anyone out there that if you make misrepresentations to Arizona consumers — I don't give a crap who you know, who you're buddies with — at the end of the day, you will be held accountable by the attorney general.

MARK BRODIE: Mark, is it possible that Sonora Quest was — I'm not necessarily defending what they're doing — but is it possible that there was just, and I hate to use this word, but just incompetence as opposed to actual malice here?

BRNOVICH: Yeah. Mark, that is entirely possible. And that's why we told them to retain their records, so we can take a look at them and we can get to the bottom of whether this was something that was intentional, something that was willful, something that was reckless or just plain old incompetence. But we do need to bottom of it, because, as I said, what is important is not only holding these individual companies responsible when they make misrepresentations, but additionally, it's important for the attorney general to send a very strong message to anyone out there that if you make misrepresentations or, you know, the old saying that ... your mouth can't be writing checks that your ass can't cash. I don't know if I can say that on public radio, but I think you guys know what I'm getting at.

GOLDSTEIN: Well, Mark, I've got to come to this ...

BRNOVICH: Sorry, you can edit that out. I apologize.

GOLDSTEIN: It's too late. It's live. ... But briefly, though, what gets me is that more than once — and you're not someone who who passes words a lot — you've mentioned "if someone's buddies with someone." Ae you concerned that that Sonora Quest has some special relationship?

BRNOVICH: You know, what I'm trying to get at is that in the past, you have had, let's say, Arizona-centric companies or companies that were, you know, close to certain other elected officials that seemingly got a pass. You guys maybe recall we went after Theranos, and a lot of people said, "Oh my gosh, they've got ties to the Repubilcan party." And they were close to a bunch of elected officials here, but it didn't matter. We were willing to take them on. And I think that's part of what I want to say as far as messaging is that we don't care who you doing press conferences, we don't care who you know, what you've done in the past. At the end of the day, if you make misrepresentations to Arizona consumers, you have to be held accountable. And so it's not only about this case, but it's about other future cases to really send that strong message.

BRODIE: When you talk about those future cases — I mean, there's been a lot of discussion about schools, for example, what they need to do to reopen. Gyms, there's an ongoing legal battle about whether gyms can reopen. How important is this particular issue to those other types of businesses and entities looking to reopen and gets back to some semblance of normal?

BRNOVICH: Well, I think we all want to get back to some semblance of normal, but we also all want to be safe. And so, I think part of the frustration is it seems like a lot of times that we aren't getting information. You guys may recall when I was on your show months ago — when the crisis wasn't as bad as it is now — we talked about I talked about the fact that, look, we need transparency, we need testing we need tracing. And I would still stand by that. Those are the three keys, those Ts. And so I think anything that undermines the public confidence where we have a lack of transparency or when you get in situations where, it just seems like sometimes here ... You guys remember the old Peanuts comic where Lucy would hold the football and then she'd pull it away from Charlie Brown? I think part of the reason why people are so frustrated, it just seems like we just lurch from, oh, one thing to the next thing. And, what are going to be the standard for opening the schools? What do we need to do? How do we need to do it? Are we ensuring that there is enough testing out there? Are we ensuring that we've got some realistic tracing program in place? And so I think that that's — even as a parent myself of a school age children — I think that's what we all want to know. We all want to know, OK, what is the plan, and are we going to stick to it? What are the metrics? What needs to be done? And so I think that's a separate issue. But I think it is part of people's frustration.

GOLDSTEIN: All right. That is Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich. Mark, always a pleasure to talk with you. Thanks.

BRNOVICH: Thanks, guys.

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Steve Goldstein was a host at KJZZ from 1997 to 2022.