Coronavirus Testing Website Goes Live and Quickly Hits Capacity

SAN FRANCISCO — A website intended to facilitate nationwide testing for coronavirus that was promoted by President Trump in a news conference on Friday quickly reached capacity when it went live in a small pilot project late on Sunday night.

The website, created by Verily, a life sciences unit of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, fell far short of the wide-ranging capabilities administration officials described on Friday. In its initial rollout, it was meant to point people to testing locations in two San Francisco Bay Area counties.

It ran into two issues: First, it was telling people with symptoms of the virus that they were not eligible for the screening program. And second, they were asked to create an account with Google or log in to an existing Google account and sign an authorization form.

Still, within a few hours of launching, Verily said it could not schedule any more appointments at the time because it had reached capacity.

Daniel Hom, 77, a pharmacist who lives in Berkeley, Calif., and works in nursing homes, said he filled out the survey on Sunday night around 8 p.m. and found out that he qualified for the test. He said he thought his age was the primary factor for becoming eligible, because his son, who is in his 30s and also works in health care, was not selected.

On Monday morning, Mr. Hom said he drove to the parking lot of the San Mateo County event center where he got a nasal swab. “They stuck it way up there,” he said. Mr. Hom was told that results should arrive within four days by email depending on how quickly Quest Diagnostics can process the test.

“I was impressed how organized they were, considering it was the first day,” he said.

Verily said it was trying to help public health officials expand access to testing in areas with a high volume of known cases. The new site is supposed to direct so-called high-risk individuals to newly opened testing centers in Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties, which include Silicon Valley.

The first issue appeared to be a result of what the site was intended to do. It started with an initial survey asking whether people were “currently experiencing severe cough, shortness of breath, fever or other concerning symptoms.” If they selected “yes,” the site abruptly ended the survey and said in-person testing through the program “is not the right fit.” In smaller font, Verily suggested seeking medical help.

Responding “no” to the symptoms led to more questions to gauge eligibility for testing by asking age, location and other factors. This caused confusion among people trying to use the site.

When reporters and users asked if disqualifying people with symptoms was done in error, Verily said it wasn’t a mistake.

“The initial question is meant to ensure that anyone who is seriously ill does not come to our sites because they are not prepared to provide medical attention,” said Carolyn Wang, a Verily spokeswoman, in a written statement. “We are early in this pilot and are going to be learning more that will help us refine this COVID-19 risk screening and testing.”

Once deemed eligible and depending on availability, people were directed to a mobile testing center run by Verily in conjunction with local health officials. The actual coronavirus test will be a nasal swab conducted by nurses and nurse practitioners with oversight from the company’s clinical research staff.

Ms. Wang declined to say how many tests were being performed. As more testing sites come online, the program aims to cover the entire state, Verily said.

Verily is rolling out its virus-screening tool at a moment when its parent company, Google, is facing intense scrutiny for it push to acquire and analyze health data. A group of U.S. senators is looking into a deal that Google made with Ascension, the nation’s second-largest hospital system, which gave the tech giant access to millions of medical records without patients’ explicit knowledge or consent.

Verily said that having people sign in with their Google account would allow it to connect people with tools — like electronic screening — that it has built for Project Baseline, its research effort to collect comprehensive health data and map human health. The company also said it would not connect people’s virus screening data with their Google account data “without explicit consent.”

But some privacy experts said requiring a Google account for the virus screening could create barriers to participation or dissuade people concerned about what the company might do with their information. A free self-assessment tool for coronavirus offered by government health services in Alberta, Canada, for instance, does not require any login.

“What we need are substantive and absolute promises of care, loyalty and confidentiality that will keep participants safe and convince them that this project is being done entirely for public health purposes,” said Woody Hartzog, a professor of law and computer science at Northeastern University in Boston.

The website has been mired in controversy from the start. In a news conference on Friday, Mr. Trump said Google had 1,700 engineers working on the project, claiming that the company had made great progress.

The website was actually the work of Verily and Sundar Pichai, Alphabet’s chief executive. Mr. Pichai said “a planning effort” was underway in an internal memo a day before the White House news conference. The project was limited to the Bay Area and the 1,700 engineers hailed by Mr. Trump appeared to be the number of Google employees who had volunteered to help Verily.

A Verily spokeswoman has said there is no current timetable for a national rollout of its screening program. The website became publicly available one day before a Monday deadline that Verily had announced.

Separate from Verily’s efforts, Google announced that it was working on a “nationwide website” to provide information on virus symptoms and testing sites. The company had made no mention of that project on Friday when it directed all inquiries about Mr. Trump’s website announcement to Verily.

Daisuke Wakabayashi reported from San Francisco and Natasha Singer reported from New York.

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