Coronavirus Testing Website Goes Live and Runs Into Confusion

SAN FRANCISCO — A website intended to facilitate nationwide testing for coronavirus that was promoted by President Trump in a news conference on Friday quickly caused confusion 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 supposed to point people to testing locations in two San Francisco Bay Area counties.

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

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

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 formed 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.

When reporters 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 will be 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. The test results will be sent to the person via email.

Ms. Wang said the testing sites have appointments scheduled for Monday, although she 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 said it needed people to create or sign into a Google account so they could collect the answers to the screening, contact the individual for testing and send results to them. The company said it would not combine the data from the program with other information collected by Google.

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.

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