Two Bay Area counties halt COVID-19 test program run by Google offshoot
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.
In San Francisco’s Mission District, a community effort is helping Latinos and other low-wage workers who can’t afford to stay home and fear losing their jobs if they test positive for the coronavirus.
“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 the test kits and perform the lab work. What Verily provides is a digital platform where people are screened for symptoms, schedule testing appointments at participating sites and check back for test results.
Dr. Noha Aboelata is CEO of Roots Community Health Center, an East Oakland clinic that serves mostly African Americans and is one of the original Verily sites in Oakland. Her experience with Verily is best described as a tale of two lines.
In May, Aboelata worked with Verily to establish a walk-up site at her clinic, rather than the drive-thru model the company typically uses. There would be two lines: one for people who scheduled their appointments through Verily’s online portal; and a second for people who had not preregistered with Verily. Roots would staff both lines, and Verily would supply test kits and personal protective equipment including masks, which were “like gold” at the time, Aboelata said.
Problems emerged almost immediately, she said. People were suspicious of the requirement that they sign up with a Gmail account and the request for personal information, such as health status and risk factors. “You don’t necessarily want to share that with Google,” Aboelata said.
The people who ended up in the Verily-registered line, she said, tended to be white and to come from wealthier ZIP Codes outside East Oakland. And because Verily never changed the website language describing Roots as a drive-thru site, many were angry at having to walk up.
Californians of color are far more likely to become infected or die from the coronavirus. The most recent surge in cases exacerbates those inequities.
“We had people coming from all over the Bay Area who were frustrated that they had to park in Oakland, where they had probably never been and didn’t seem to want to be,” she said. “They were creating quite a scene, and some were saying, ‘I want to talk to the manager.’” She had to ask a few people to leave. “One of them was saying, ‘This is so Oakland, and I hope you all get the virus.’ It was pretty awful.”
The Roots line for clients who did not register through Verily, on the other hand, was made up mostly of people of color from the community who long had come to the clinic for medical care, she said.
When Aboelata looked at the data, the disparities were obvious: 12.9% of people tested in the non-Verily line were positive for the coronavirus, while just 1.5% of people tested in the Verily-registered line were positive. For Aboelata, it was clear that the two lines were testing two entirely different populations.
After just six days of testing, Aboelata asked Verily to leave.
“From where we sit, this is an old story,” she said. “Corporations that are not really invested in the community come helicoptering in, bearing gifts, but what they’re taking away is much more valuable.” That thing of value, Aboelata believes, are the data Verily requests from everyone who signs up for a test.
In San Francisco, Verily mobile testing clinics have also been sidelined. County officials declined to provide an explanation. However, multiple people with knowledge of the testing efforts said the Verily registration process proved chaotic for homeless people and others in the Tenderloin district, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
Kenneth Kim, clinical director of Glide, an outreach center that helped run the Tenderloin site, said many homeless residents coming in for testing had Gmail accounts, as Verily required, but could not remember their passwords. When staffers at the testing site tried to help them retrieve their passwords, they found that Google’s two-factor authentication process required users to have the same phone number as when they signed up, which few of the homeless participants did.
Dr. Jonathan Fuchs, who leads San Francisco County’s testing strategy at the Department of Public Health, confirmed that the partnership with Verily was “currently on hold.” He declined to provide further details.
In response to questions, Verily spokesperson Kathleen Parkes said the program requires users to register with Gmail accounts because Google’s authentication procedures safeguard sensitive data and protect “against unknown individuals sending or receiving information with serious consequences for health or well-being.” Conversations with San Francisco and Alameda remain “active,” Parkes said. The company did not respond to specific questions about the testing disparities cited by community leaders.
Verily’s role in coronavirus testing has been shadowed by controversy since President Trump told reporters at a Rose Garden news conference in March that “Google” was developing a screening website and testing tool. “Google has 1,700 engineers working on this right now,” he said. “They’ve made tremendous progress.”
At the time, tests were in short supply and Trump was under pressure to increase capacity as infections ballooned in California, New York and other states. But Google was not building such a website. Instead, Verily, another Alphabet Inc. subsidiary focused on life sciences, was in the early stages of developing a website to help triage people in need of testing, Google clarified in a tweet. It planned to unveil a pilot program in two Bay Area counties.
Days later, Newsom announced a California partnership with Verily that so far has paid the company $55 million to establish both mobile and brick-and-mortar testing sites. In addition, Verily has partnered with Rite Aid to manage testing at approximately 300 sites in multiple states under a $122.6 million federal contract between the pharmacy chain and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. California’s Verily contracts are in place through Nov. 30; the HHS contract is set to expire in January.
Participants in the Verily initiative sign an authorization form that says their information can be shared with multiple third parties involved in the testing program, including unnamed contractors and state and federal health authorities.
“While the form tells you that Verily may share data with ‘entities that assist with the testing program,’ it doesn’t say who those entities are. If one of those unnamed and unknown entities violates your privacy by misusing your data, you have no way to know and no way to hold them accountable,” said Lee Tien, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for digital privacy.
The policy states Verily will not use the data collected for its own research or meld it with other Google products without the user’s permission. But it notes participants may be invited to share their data for such research, and the testing portal prominently features links inviting participants to sign up for other Verily research.
In California, as of Oct. 8, the Verily sites had processed an average of 1,583 patient samples per day over the prior seven days, according to the California Department of Public Health. Verily, the state health department and Alameda County all declined requests to provide race and ethnicity data by testing site.
Dr. Kim Rhoads, a UCSF professor and former colorectal surgeon who leads a COVID testing project for Black communities, said Aboelata’s experience with Verily is emblematic of widespread racial disparities in the testing and treatment of COVID-19. “We can’t keep talking about the consequences being unintended,” Rhoads said. “We are six months into this pandemic and anyone who is surprised by the repetitive findings of inequity in testing, the spread of virus and COVID-19 mortality just isn’t paying attention.”
In an interview, Ghaly, California’s health secretary, said he believed the state’s partnerships with Verily and other companies continue to be a national model for addressing problems with testing disparities, including setting up venues for minority and rural populations. For example, in counties in northern parts of the state, sometimes the only regular testing available was through mobile testing set up under the program, he said.
“I think there’s lots of success and lots of lessons learned and we continue to apply them,” Ghaly said. “Until the entire effort is completed, I always look at where we are as part success and part opportunity to keep learning.”
In a September response to the Oakland COVID-19 disparities task force, Ghaly outlined several actions the state had taken or would take in response to the concerns, including having Verily update its platform to include additional languages and work with testing vendors on alternative methods for data collection to address privacy concerns.
“Some of the things we learned specifically in our experience in Alameda and other parts of the Bay Area is language matters,” Ghaly told KHN.
The latest maps and charts on the spread of COVID-19 in California.
After working with the homeless for 25 years, Dr. Margot Kushel, director of the UCSF Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative, said she wasn’t surprised to learn some community leaders ran into problems with Verily.
“It turns out that in public health, the highest-tech solution is usually not the right one,” she said. To bring COVID cases down, she explained, requires a “laser focus” on the highest-risk communities. And people in those communities often don’t want to turn over the protected information Verily asks for, whether because of fears about their immigration status or a history of mistrust of the medical establishment and policing.
“You can imagine a million and a half reasons why people would distrust it,” Kushel said. “The very structure of this is set up to fail. And by failing the communities who need it most, we fail everybody.”
California correspondent Angela Hart contributed to this report.
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