San Francisco and Oakland cut ties with Verily COVID-19 testing program

Two California counties are no longer using Google sister company Verily’s COVID-19 testing system, Kaiser Health News reported. The counties, home to San Francisco and Oakland, stopped using the company’s testing platform over concerns that it doesn’t adequately protect patient data and that it doesn’t help low-income residents who have the greatest need for testing.

Verily’s platform screens people for symptoms, books appointments, and reports test results. (It contracts out to lab companies that do the actual testing work.) California has around $55 million in contracts with Verily for its testing program, which launched in March with a limited number of sites before expanding to at least 28 counties.

The program was controversial from the very beginning. President Donald Trump claimed inaccurately at a March press conference that Google was building a nationwide website to guide coronavirus testing, when the only project in the works was this Verily program.

More recently, in June, members of the Oakland COVID-19 Racial Disparities Task Force outlined concerns around accessibility and data privacy in a letter to California Secretary of Health Mark Ghaly. In order to get tested at a Verily site in California, patients need to sign up with a Gmail account and provide personal information like their address and health conditions.

Patients at an East Oakland health clinic that serves mainly African Americans were suspicious of those requirements, Noha Aboelata, CEO of the health clinic, told Kaiser Health News. The clinic partnered with Verily for a walk-up testing site. The Verily privacy policy also says it could share data with third parties. “That always is going to raise suspicion and concern in our community,” Aboelata said. The partnership lasted less than a week.

In San Francisco, the Gmail requirement made it difficult for health care workers to use Verily to test residents who are homeless.

People experiencing homelessness are at high risk for contracting and having severe outcomes from COVID-19, as are Black and Latino people. Testing for those groups is particularly important. The difficulties with Verily testing sites show that public health solutions don’t work when they aren’t focused on the needs and challenges of the communities they aim to serve. Underserved communities are less likely to have seamless access to the internet or smartphones and may be less likely to trust the medical system enough to turn over their data.

“It turns out that in public health, the highest-tech solution is usually not the right one,” Margot Kushel, director of the UCSF Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative, told Kaiser Health News.