Last week President Trump made an announcement that surprised many: Google would soon launch a website that helps screen people for the coronavirus nation-wide. Turns out that website was a surprise to Google too.
Shortly after Trump made the announcement on national television, Google put out a statement correcting the president’s claim. It turned out Google wasn’t working on the website that Trump said they were. Rather another company called Verily that Google’s owner Alphabet also owns was working on a web-based tool that could help people screen for coronavirus. But that tool was only in the “early stages” and would be limited to specific areas of the country, not nation-wide as Trump claimed.
Statement from Verily: "We are developing a tool to help triage individuals for Covid-19 testing. Verily is in the early stages of development, and planning to roll testing out in the Bay Area, with the hope of expanding more broadly over time.
— Google Communications (@Google_Comms) March 13, 2020
As of today, that website by Verily has officially launched. Called Project Baseline, the website allows people to complete a questionnaire to find out if the symptoms they have could be caused by the COVID-19 coronavirus. If a person’s symptoms do look like they could be coronavirus-related, the person will then be able to potentially get a free COVID-19 test to confirm whether they have the virus or not.
However, there are some big caveats to the project. As Google warned last week, Verily’s website is only offering Project Baseline to help get people tested for COVID-19 to residents of two counties in California: Santa Clara County and San Mateo County–hardly the nationwide coverage Trump promised.
Another issue people have pointed out with Project Baseline is that the website asks a single question related to symptoms: “Are you currently experiencing severe cough, shortness of breath, fever, or other concerning symptoms?” Depending on your answer, you’re told if you qualify for a free test. But if you do qualify, the site is currently alerting users (at the time of this writing) that “Unfortunately, we are unable to schedule more appointments at this time.”
— Daisuke Wakabayashi (@daiwaka) March 16, 2020
Another issue people have pointed out with Verily’s website is that in order to use the screener, users need to create a Google account or connect it to their existing Google account.
To use the Google/Verily screening program to see if you're eligible for COVID-19 testing, you have to create a Google account or connect it your existing Google account.
This is both a barrier to entry and a major privacy problem pic.twitter.com/L9j5ZDIFGp
— Natasha Singer (@natashanyt) March 16, 2020
It should be noted, however, that Verily does state in its FAQ that “Project Baseline follows federal and state regulations governing the collection and use of an individual’s data, including the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).” Still, the idea that you must use a Google account in conjunction with Project Baseline may leave a bad taste in people’s mouths considering Google’s history with privacy.