San Francisco and Alameda counties have stopped using Verily, Google’s health-focused sister company, to test for the novel coronavirus, Kaiser Health News reported on Monday.
Verily launched a pilot covid-19 testing program earlier this year and scored $US55 ($77) million in contracts with California state to set up both mobile and stationary test sites (it’s also part of Rite Aid’s $US120 ($169) million-plus contract with the Department of Health and Human Services). What quickly became clear is that Verily’s services weren’t geared towards filling the needs of communities especially vulnerable to the pandemic: people of colour, those with low income, and the homeless.
San Francisco and Alameda counties apparently dropped Verily for two primary reasons: concerns that Verily was using coronavirus testing to gather health information on patients, and the impression wealthier communities were receiving resources originally intended for low-income, Black, and Latino ones. Mayor Libby Schaaf of Oakland, which falls in Alameda County, and other officials on a racial disparity task force wrote a letter to state Secretary of Health Mark Ghaly in June warning Verily’s services fell short of expectations.
In the letter, Schaaf and other officials wrote that Verily did not allow appointments to be made by phone and required users input their own information through its Project Baseline portal, making it difficult for “less tech-savvy users” or those without smartphones or stable internet access to use. Verily was also only available in English and Spanish, and users who receive negative test results can only receive that information by logging back onto the portal, they added.
The letter also noted that Verily’s privacy policies technically allow for sharing of user data with a large number of other entities:
Per the privacy policies, personal data can be shared with “Verily’s contractors… the entity that is operating the site and its contractors, the state Department of Public Health and potentially other federal, state, and local health authorities, and other entities that assist with the testing program.” This exposes vulnerable community members to widespread sharing of personal data that could be used for commercial or other purposes.
As previously noted by Gizmodo, Verily’s Project Baseline was originally designed to “contribute to the map of human health and participate in clinical research.” There’s no concrete guarantee that the pharmaceutical companies running clinical trials through Project Baseline will keep any of that data quiet, and Verily reserves the right to use collected data for “commercial product research and development” and compile it in a “de-identified data set.” Verily told Gizmodo there were a number of privacy controls on data related to its covid-19 testing program, but stopped short of stating outright that none of it would be used for commercial purposes.
Those aren’t the only issues Schaff and the task force brought up. Verily also mislabeled a test site in Oakland as drive-thru for over a month, and many of those showing up for testing through the portal were from different zip codes; there were reportedly wait times of a week or more for test results.
Per Kaiser, Verily had two sites in Oakland, one of which shut in May and the other of which is expected to “reopen using a different testing vendor.”
Dr. Noha Aboelata, CEO of East Oakland clinic Roots Community Health Centre, told the site that she partnered with Verily to run a test site but asked it to leave after just six days. In addition to the issue with the mislabeled drive-thru capability, patients who signed up for Verily tended to be white and arrive from wealthier neighbourhoods, while walk-ins tended to be people of colour. Aboelata told Kaiser that data showed just 1.5% of the people in the Verily line were testing positive for the virus, as opposed to nearly 13% of walk-ins. She added that many of the latter group were wary of signing over health data.
“That always is going to raise suspicion and concern in our community…from where we sit, this is an old story,” Aboelata told Kaiser. “Corporations that are not really invested in the community come helicoptering in, bearing gifts, but what they’re taking away is much more valuable.”
Verily mobile testing clinics in San Francisco County have been sidelined with no official explanation, Kaiser reported, but multiple sources told the site “the Verily registration process proved chaotic for homeless people and others in the Tenderloin district, one of the city’s poorest neighbourhoods.” Dr. Jonathan Fuchs, testing strategy lead for the county health department, told the site the department’s Verily program was “currently on hold.”