‘Pretty awful.’ Two Bay Area counties halt COVID-19 test program run by Google offshoot

A person displays their documentation behind the rolled up car window, to enter the Verily coronavirus free drive-up testing site at Cal Expo in Sacramento, Calif., Friday, March 27, 2020. Area residents who are 18 or older and experiencing mild to moderate symptoms can apply online for Project Baseline's COVID-19 screening in-person testing. The program has been operating in the San Francisco Bay Area before expanding to Sacramento. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
A person displays documentation to enter a Verily coronavirus free drive-up testing site at Cal Expo in Sacramento in March. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Amid fanfare in March, California officials celebrated the launch of a multimillion-dollar contract with Verily — Google’s health-focused sister company — that they said would vastly expand coronavirus testing among the state’s impoverished and underserved communities.

But seven months later, San Francisco and Alameda counties — two of the state’s most populous — have severed ties with the company’s testing sites amid concerns about patients’ data privacy and complaints that funding intended to boost testing in low-income Black and Latino neighborhoods instead was benefiting higher-income residents in other communities.

San Francisco and Alameda are among at least 28 counties, including Los Angeles, where California has paid Verily to boost testing capacity through contracts collectively worth $55 million, according to a spokesperson for the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. About half have received coronavirus tests through six mobile units that travel among rural areas.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has heralded the investment as a game-changer in addressing persistent inequities in access to testing across the state that tend to fall along lines of ethnicity and income. The goal, he said in April, touting six new Verily testing sites, was to “make sure we’re truly testing California broadly defined, not just parts of California and those that somehow have the privilege of getting ahead of the line.”

Yet the roadblocks for getting underrepresented populations to use the program soon became apparent to Alameda County officials. In a June letter to California Secretary of Health Mark Ghaly, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf and other members of the county’s COVID-19 Racial Disparities Task Force raised numerous concerns about the Verily protocols.

Among their complaints: People signing up for a test through Verily had to do so online, using an existing or newly created Gmail account; the sign-ups were offered only in English or Spanish; and participants were asked to provide sensitive personal information, including their home address and whether they were managing chronic health conditions such as diabetes, obesity or congestive heart failure, which could expose their data to third-party use.

“It is critical in this crisis that we continue to build trust between government and healthcare providers and vulnerable communities,” the task force members wrote.

Verily had two sites in Alameda County, and one was shuttered by May. The second, located at an Oakland church, closed in August and is set to reopen using a different testing vendor. Alameda County testing director Dr. Jocelyn Freeman Garrick said that while the Verily sites helped the county reach testing goals in terms of raw numbers, they were phased out because of long wait times of a week or more for results, and because the tests were not reaching the residents in greatest need.

Verily does not manufacture the tests used at its California sites. It contracts with major corporations such as Quest Diagnostics and Thermo Fisher Scientific to provide

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Senators Want to Halt Army Combat Fitness Test Rollout

Two senators are asking other lawmakers on Capitol Hill to support a push to pause implementation of the new Army Combat Fitness Test, which they say sets unrealistic standards for some soldiers.

Democratic Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Richard Blumenthal wrote a letter to House and Senate Armed Services Committee leaders Tuesday, asking them to keep a measure in the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act that would halt the rollout of the long-awaited ACFT. Military.com obtained a copy of the letter, which was first reported on by The Washington Post.

Gillibrand, of New York, and Blumenthal, of Connecticut, say an independent study is needed to examine whether the test is fair to both men and women. They also say the ACFT lowers standards for young male soldiers while setting unrealistic requirements for those serving in fields with few physical demands, such as medical personnel, judge advocates or cyber warriors.

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“Since the Department of the Army has initiated the new Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT), significant concerns have been raised regarding the data used to develop the test, initial test scores, and logistical issues,” the letter states. “The ACFT will determine the career path and success of all soldiers currently serving, yet many information gaps and unknowns remain.”

Army officials did not respond to questions about the letter. Units were authorized to begin taking the ACFT on Oct. 1 after the test was delayed due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The scores soldiers receive on the new test won’t count until 2022, however, and will be for data collection only.

Still, Gillibrand and Blumenthal say the ACFT rollout is “premature.” They point to gender and age gaps in the Baseline Soldier Physical Readiness Requirements Study, which the Army conducted to identify fitness requirements that best measure demands of combat.

“The average participant was 24 years old and male,” the letter states. “During Phase II, only 14.3% of test participants were female, and in Phase III, only 10.5% of participants were female. This is not even representative of the total Army force.”

And while the study determined the leg tuck is not a “significant predictive variable,” the letter adds, it was still chosen to be one of the ACFT’s six events. The leg tuck leads to the most test failures, they wrote, yet the Army “has failed to show [it] has any nexus to the skills necessary for combat.”

“It is imperative that we pause implementation until all questions and concerns are answered,” the senators said. “Soldiers’ careers depend on it and the continued lethality of our force requires it.”

Last year, slides leaked on social media showing female soldiers were failing the ACFT at much higher rates than men. About a third of male soldiers were failing the test at the time, while 84% of women were failing.

Maj. Gen. Lonnie Hibbard, commander of the Center for Initial Military Training, told Military.com shortly after the leak

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