‘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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