California’s San Francisco and Alameda (home to Oakland) counties are no longer using Verily’s COVID-19 testing system, according to Kaiser Health News. (Update: A Verily spokesperson says this isn’t true and that it hasn’t severed ties with the counties. See full update below.) Verily, an Alphabet-owned health-focused company, signed contracts collectively worth $55 million with 28 California counties earlier this year to make coronavirus testing more accessible in the state. Shortly after opening testing sites in March, though, members of Alameda’s COVID-19 Racial Disparities Task Force raised concerns about Verily’s protocols. In particular, they pointed out how requiring people to sign up for testing with a Gmail account keeps it out of reach for low-income residents who need it the most.
While Verily doesn’t do testing itself — it has contracts with other companies who supply the testing kits and do the lab work — it provides a digital platform where people can sign up for testing. It also runs testing sites where people can drive-thru for a nasal swab. Signing up for testing through Verily requires a Gmail account, though, and that has proven to be an issue, especially with the homeless who don’t always have access to a phone or an internet connection.
Dr. Noha Aboelata, CEO of Roots Community Health Center in Oakland who worked with Verily to establish a walk-up site at her clinic, echoed the task force’s concerns. She found that the people who registered through Verily for testing tended to be white — her clinic mostly serves African Americans and other PoCs — and to come from wealthier ZIP codes outside of East Oakland. The doctor severed her ties with Verily after only six days.
Dr. Jonathan Fuchs, who leads San Francisco County’s testing strategy, confirmed to Kaiser that the partnership with Verily is “currently on hold.” Verily spokesperson Kathleen Parkes told the publication, though, that conversations with San Francisco and Alameda remain “active.” In addition, she explained that the testing program requires a Gmail account so that it can use Google’s authentication procedures to protect people’s sensitive data.
Update 10/27/20 1:25PM ET: A Verily spokesperson has disputed KHN’s claims and told Engadget that the company has never severed ties with the counties. They said:
"We are currently working with multiple counties in the Bay Area, and the counties of Alameda, SF and city of Oakland never severed ties with Verily. Many of the sites in these regions were established as short-term testing centers and not intended to operate for longer periods of time. The Allen Temple site in Oakland was donated by a local church for a finite period of time, for example. We were in the process of establishing a new site with SF, but were directed by the state to relocate that capacity to San Diego in the last week of September. "
In addition, the spokesperson said Verily has a system called “Assisted Accounts” specifically for individuals who want to sign up for testing but do not have regular internet access. And as for concerns about privacy, the company said it employs security controls for the program “that map to the HIPAA Security Rule and operates under CCPA.”