The Perfect Enemy | COVID test sample in biohazard bag again sent to N.J. home instead of lab
July 7, 2022

COVID test sample in biohazard bag again sent to N.J. home instead of lab

COVID test sample in biohazard bag again sent to N.J. home instead of lab  NJ.com

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Sometimes, mistakes happen.

When New Jersey launched its at-home COVID testing program in December, it hired Vault Health to distribute tests to residents and conduct the needed lab work.

The cost for the program, over the first 10 weeks, was $94 million, according to state records. At the time, it was nearly impossible to find at-home tests on store shelves or get an appointment for a PCR test.

But back in January, shortly after the program launched, there was a mishap. A resident who had requested test kits instead received a test specimen — a saliva sample that had already been taken by someone else — that was meant for the lab. It was a “labeling error” at one of Vault’s warehouses last winter, the company said.

At the time, Vault said fewer than 100 people were affected.

Some of those errant tests are apparently still out there.

Francine Gargano of North Plainfield said she received an unexpected hot pink envelope in May.

“Biological substance,” it said.

The biohazard bag containing an at-home COVID test from the state’s program, run by Vault Health, that was inadvertently sent to a home instead of the lab. (Courtesy Francine Gargano)

She said she had no idea what it could be. When she opened it, it contained a vial of some kind of liquid. It was obviously some kind of test sample — we now know it was another COVID test that was meant for Vault’s labs — but she had no idea what it was or why it was sent to her.

Gargano posted photos to Facebook, and before long, her friends tracked down a Bamboozled story that featured a similar incident.

Another resident had received a test sample that was meant for a lab.

When it happened, Vault said one of its vendors had mistakenly shipped customer saliva samples to the homes of people seeking test kits. It was an “isolated labeling error” at one fulfillment warehouse in Minnesota, the company said.

“It resulted in some individuals who ordered tests from Vault receiving incorrect return shipping labels directing samples to customer addresses instead of the lab,” a Vault spokeswoman said at the time. “Of the 1 million tests we’ve shipped since the start of omicron, fewer than 100 were misdirected.” She also noted that the test samples do not contain live virus and pose no health risk.

“Obviously, it is still happening,” Gargano said.

Gargano had ordered tests through the program for her family in December, she said, because she felt sick and she was unable to get tests elsewhere. That’s how her information got into the Vault COVID test database.

But the May package was a surprise.

“There were no directions and the fact that it was saying it was hazardous made me very nervous,” she said. “I contacted my local health department who deals with our county health department and they won’t do anything about this.”

They suggested she call her local police department.

Police came to pick up the package and they said they would contact the State Police, but that none of the agencies would be performing any tests, Gargano said she was told.

The state Department of Health directed our inquiries to Vault.

Vault said it was aware of two other instances in May and June when “people were collecting a sample using mislabeled test kits shipped to them in the late December and early January timeframe when the labeling issue occurred,” a spokeswoman said.

The company said its customer service team works to reissue a new test kit “anytime we hear from a patient who did not get a result after submitting a sample.”

Since the New Jersey program started, Vault has sent out 664,000 tests to state residents and it has received 105,000 back to the lab for results, the company said. .

So it seems the test sample that was sent to Gargano was part of the same labeling issue from December.

If you still have unused at-home tests from the state program — or any COVID tests — be sure to check the expiration date before you use them. And if you have one from the Vault program, make sure the label won’t send your sample to an unsuspecting homeowner.

While at-home tests are a lot easier to find these days, you can still get free ones through the state’s program with Vault. To place an order, visit learn.vaulthealth.com/nj.

As for whether the person whose test arrived at Gargano’s mailbox will ever get a result, we don’t know.

Gargano said the company told her it was reaching out to a number of people.

If the person contacts the company about the missing test result, it will send them a new one, Vault said.

Little comfort if you’re quarantining because of a possible exposure.

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Karin Price Mueller may be reached at KPriceMueller@NJAdvanceMedia.com. Follow her on Twitter at @KPMueller.