Google's sister company, Verily, has launched a screening website for people who want to test for COVID-19. However, Verily's website is very limited: it is only available to people in the Bay Area of California and is more of a pilot program than a public health company.
It's even more restrictive: to qualify, you must be at least 18 years old, speak English, and be resident in the United States. It looks very much like the program that a Verily spokesman told us on the phone on Friday, rather than the expansive triage system that the Trump administration promised.
The first question on Verily's website is, "Do you currently have a severe cough, shortness of breath, fever, or other symptoms?" If you answer "yes", you will be informed that the program "does not fit properly" and you will need to see a doctor. A Verily spokesman who had commented on the topic said:
This screener was developed in collaboration with state health authorities. The first question is to make sure that people who are seriously ill do not come to our locations because they are unwilling to provide medical help. We are still in the early stages of this pilot and will learn more to refine this COVID-9 risk screening and testing.
If you answer "No", you will be asked to log in with a Google account and sign an authorization form for informed consent. It indicates that your information may be shared with public health officials.
You will then be guided through a series of screener questions about your symptoms:
The actual screener asks questions about travel and work responsibilities. And questions about each symptom are asked again. There are a few additional questions, but reading and answering took about 3 minutes. pic.twitter.com/t0M8GzIP4l
– Ryan Mac (@ RMac18) March 16, 2020
In a blog post on Sunday, Verily said that it was working closely with the state of California on the pilot program. No promises have been made to expand the program beyond the state of California:
Ultimately, our goal is to help local authorities expand access to testing in California as demand continues to grow. The program is at an early stage and we will take the time to assess pilot site operations in the Bay Area before expanding to other locations. We are working closely with the Governor Newsom office, federal agencies, and local health authorities to ensure that we have the right skills to help more people in the coming weeks.
Verily's location is on the project baseline, which until now has only been used to connect people with potential clinical trials. This health data collection and protection infrastructure was one of the reasons that Verily's screening site was placed on Project Baseline. The website also claims that information you provide will not be shared with your insurance company or associated with your Google account. However, a Google account is required to use the website.
A screenshot of Verily's new website
The website was launched after a weekend of confused and inaccurate statements from the White House about a website that Google is said to have created. According to Wired, Google had not expected to be mentioned in the press conference on Friday. And so it wasn't originally planned to build such a site, Axios reported, but began to crawl according to Trump's statements. Over the weekend, Google itself did not correct the dataset, but instead published a series of tweets that refer to Verily's websites and its own efforts to provide information about the corona virus.
The previous Sunday, President Trump held up a printout of these tweets from the Google Comms account, claiming that they "justified" his original statements on Friday. Google's tweets didn't do this, but they also carefully avoided contradicting the president directly. Google itself has not announced a screening website for COVID-19.
According to this post by CEO Sundar Pichai, Google has instead announced that it will launch an information website:
This includes best practices on prevention, links to relevant information from the World Health Organization (WHO) and Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and helpful Google tips and tools for individuals, teachers, and businesses. We will be releasing a first version of the website late Monday, March 16, and will continue to improve and update it with additional resources.
This more extensive site could come as Vice President Mike Pence again promised at the press conference on Sunday that such a site could be created and stressed that the administration would also work with other technology companies. It is not clear what this work looks like or whether these technology companies were approached before the weekend fight.
It is currently clear that Verily's current website is a pilot program, the scope and availability of which are limited. More clearly, the government has not yet given US citizens all the details of when and how to access a coronavirus test, although it is clearly in a hurry to find a way to do it.