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Verily’s coronavirus testing partnership with California is over

SAN FRANCISCO — The state of California has found a new vendor to take over 35 coronavirus testing locations that are now operated by health-tech company Verily, ending its partnership with the Google sister company.

The California Department of Public Health confirmed Thursday that it has found a new company, OptumServe, to operate Verily’s state-partnered testing sites after a contract bidding process.

“OptumServe was chosen based on many reasons, one of which was reducing costs and responsibilities for counties that previously used county personnel and resources in order to operationalize Verily sites,” the department said in an email Thursday. OptumServe allows people to make appointments over the phone and as walk-ins, and includes Spanish-language translation to make appointments, it said.

OptumServe locations will be at the same spots as the Verily ones “where feasible,” the department said.

Verily’s two contracts with the state, for fixed testing sites and mobile testing sites, were worth $ 62.5 million, the department said. One contract ended in mid-January and the other will expire at the end of February. Verily checks eligibility, facilitates appointments and runs the technology to provide results but doesn’t directly perform tests or process labs.

A subsidiary of Google parent Alphabet, Verily made a splash last March when President Donald Trump announced that Google was developing a tool to screen and schedule people for coronavirus tests. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator at the time, said they wanted to bring the screening website “across the continent.”

In actuality, Verily was working on facilitating coronavirus tests, and the rollout happened much slower than the Trump administration claimed.

Verily ran into the same hurdles that the entire coronavirus testing system faced at the beginning of the pandemic: uncertainty about the availability of supplies, long lab wait times and confusing and changing eligibility requirements. Verily, through its Project Baseline initiative, contracted with other companies to perform tests and process results.

Verily opened its first sites in California in March and now operates in more than a dozen other states.

Verily faced some early criticism in California, including that its system required a Google account to sign up for a testing spot, which prompted privacy concerns and questions about accessibility. In October, Verily halted its testing program in San Francisco.

The company still has testing sites in California through its partnership with Rite Aid. The company said in January that 1.7 million people had been tested through Project Baseline.

Verily did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.

A couple of months into testing, Verily was available only in a handful of cities, facilitating only a small portion of the estimated millions of tests taken across the country since the start of the pandemic, The Washington Post reported. It has since expanded to sites in more than a dozen states, and testing generally has become more readily available across the United States.

The company’s focus even before the crisis had been on developing the Project Baseline study, which aims to “map” human health by recruiting people to participate in clinical trials that give health-care researchers a window into specific health issues.

Coronavirus testing was part of Project Baseline and operated as a vehicle to bring together screening, scheduling and results for patients. In California, Verily partnered with the state government and multiple private companies to verify screening and conduct and process tests. Broadly, it aimed to give health officials a view of the virus’s spread in different areas.

Verily was thrust into the national spotlight on March 13, when Trump said during the daily coronavirus briefing that Google had 1,700 engineers working on the screening website.

“Google is helping to develop a website,” Trump said at the time. “It’s going to be very quickly done, unlike websites of the past, to determine whether a test is warranted and to facilitate testing at a nearby, convenient location.”

At the time, Verily had only started work on launching a small pilot of the website to begin screening people in the Bay Area. The White House announcement sent the company scrambling to roll out a public launch of the project over the weekend after Trump’s announcement.

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