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Trump’s Misconceptions About Google’s Coronavirus Efforts

President Donald J. Trump listens as Vice President Mike Pence answers a reporter’s question during a coronavirus update briefing Monday, March 9, 2020, in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by D. Myles Cullen) Date: 9 March 2020, 18:35 Source: President Trump, Vice President Pence, and Members of the Coronavirus Task Force Brief the Press Author: The White House from Washington, DC

Google’s description of its Coronavirus efforts falls short of the president’s claims.

Verily, a Google sister company under the Alphabet Inc. umbrella, is trying to assist Americans who might be infected with the Covid-19 coronavirus. On Sunday night, it launched a screening website for users in two California counties, San Mateo and Santa Clara. The website asks questions about a user’s health and travel history, which may qualify them for free testing at recently-opened California test centers, according to Reuters.

Blindsiding Google

How the website came about, and other efforts from Verily to assist with Covid-19, began with a surprise announcement on Friday. 

“I want to thank Google — Google is helping to develop a website,” President Donald Trump said on Friday. “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.”

Trump went on to claim Google had 1,700 engineers working on the initiative. The problem, however, caught Google executives entirely off-guard. It quickly released a statement clarifying that the search giant was not directly involved with the website development as it is a Verily project. Furthermore, it would not be nationwide, at least not in the near future. The limited launch to Bay Area users is the first stage of a rollout of the service which Verily clarified is still very much in the testing phase.

On Sunday, the president then lashed out on the media for latching onto the discrepancy and playing it up as the White House operating from a state of confusion. 

“The head of Google, who’s a great gentleman, called us and he apologized,” Trump said. “I don’t know where the press got their fake news, but they got it someplace.”

A Development Rush to Fulfill Trump’s Promise

Google executives are now rushing to develop a “national information website” in an attempt to live up to Trump’s promise. However, it will still be a far cry from what Trump promised, a triage site where users could evaluate their risk of having the virus and be directed to resting locations.

The Verily tool, available on its Project Baseline, was released far earlier than initially planned as a result of Trump’s remarks.

The miscommunication from the White House was a result of his son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner attempting to coordinate a response with Verily Chief Executive Andy Conrad. Kushner reached out to both Conrad and New York-based Dr. Kurt Kloss to determine the feasibility of the company working with White House officials, according to the New York Times. Kloss is the father-in-law of Kushner’s brother. 

Conrad conveyed the status of Verily’s project to Kushner while at the same time, Alphabet and Google CEO Sundar Pichai created a form for Google employees to signup to volunteer for the Verily initiative. By the following day, 1,700 Google engineers had pledged their support, a number that was then given to Kushner and apparently made its way to Trump.

Between Kushner’s limited contact with Pichai and Kushner, Trump somehow fell under the impression that the search giant had 1,700 developers on the task of developing a triage website. 

Misleading the Public and Confusing Google

Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, even presented a flowchart, developed by Kushner, illustrating how the website, then a significantly less-ambitious project, would work. Users would log into a “screening website…facilitated by Google” and if they register symptoms of Covid-19, would be directed to drive thru clinics with tests being sent to labs. Results would then be returned to patients through the same website.

Vice President Mike Pence also made rounds this weekend to talk-up Google’s alleged efforts, suggesting that “hundreds of thousands of tests” could be made available “in the very near future,” CNN reported

“For Americans looking on, by this Sunday evening, we’ll be able to give specific guidance on when the website will be available, you can go to the website, as the president said, you type in your symptoms and be given direction whether or not a test is indicated.”

The entire episode is another instance of the Trump administration skewing the facts and bungling its coronavirus response while misleading the American public. While it’s true Verily was developing a screening tool, its initial scope is incredibly minute compared to Trump’s promise. In his efforts to display leadership and offer the American public with a way to handle Covid-19, Trump promised a service that not only is not ready for a nationwide launch, but one that was never even designed for it. 

Worse, he put pressure on an American company to do something that is not even associated with them. Although Google and Verily are both owned by Alphabet, they are two separate entities. Now, Google is in fact coordinating with the White House to create a website that will serve as an informational portal, not a service to facilitate nationwide testing.

Daniel Davis

Daniel Davis is Managing Editor for The Osage County Herald-Chronicle in Kansas and also covers International news for Inside Over, a Milan-based global affairs publication. He graduated in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in political science. Outside of writing, he enjoys photography and one day hopes to return to video production. Learn more about him at his website danieldavis.la.

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