Masked co-workers discuss in an open office.
Enlarge / Office staff respecting social distancing during a meeting. Group of business men and women having a meeting in office during corona virus pandemic.

Many things about Matt Bruinooge’s senior year at Brown are different from his previous college life. One is that he logs on to a website from tech giant Alphabet twice a week to schedule nasal swabs.

Brown is one of the first customers of a pandemic safety service from Alphabet subsidiary Verily Life Sciences called Healthy at Work, or Healthy at School at colleges. It offers a website and software for surveying workers or students for symptoms, scheduling coronavirus tests, and managing the results.

The site Bruinooge uses to schedule his tests has similar styling to Google’s office suite. When a test comes back negative, he sees a graphic of something like a COVID-era hall pass, with a big check mark in soothing green. “The testing process is streamlined,” Bruinooge says—although he wonders where his data may end up.

Bruinooge is an early adopter, if not a volunteer, for a potential new market for large tech companies. Alphabet and its peers sent their workers home quickly as the pandemic surged, and many have said employees won’t return to the office until well into 2021. That hasn’t stopped them from launching services to sell to others that are willing, or required, to get people back into offices and classrooms.

Back to school

The University of Alabama System is also using Verily’s new service. Swabs are processed by commercial labs, and for a small number of customers, at Verily’s own recently accreditedCOVID-19 lab in San Francisco. Microsoft has its own bundle of COVID-era tools that can help with symptom screening and test scheduling, as well as mobile apps that can display a digital pass to control access to an office. Oracle and Salesforce has created its own pandemic services on top of existing products for managing staff or customer relationships.

All those COVID safety services are marketed with caring statements about helping people stay safe. They also offer a new revenue source during tricky economic times—and a chance to nudge businesses to invest more deeply in digitizing their operations.

As the coronavirus spread in March, administrators at the University of Kentucky turned to their health faculty for advice on operating safely and to their IT experts on what tech could contribute. Staff talked to reps and watched demos from vendors, including Google and Microsoft, but chose a new pandemic suite called Work.com from San Francisco–based Salesforce.

The school already used Salesforce’s flagship customer-relationship tools for programs like email campaigns and other communications with prospective and newly enrolled students. The company’s pandemic tools provided a way to leverage its existing database of student information to help contain coronavirus.

Students and staff on campus now receive an email each morning asking them to fill out a survey about any symptoms they’re experiencing. A person with nothing to report can be done in seconds. Anyone who doesn’t fill out the survey gets a reminder by text message later in the day and a phone call if they still don’t respond.

Head to CVS

If a person does report symptoms, they get a phone call asking for more information and, if necessary, a recommendation to get a coronavirus test. The university can rely on its own lab, but Salesforce also has a partnership with CVS to provide tests. At Kentucky, test results from the university medical center are logged in Salesforce, and positive tests automatically open a case with a team of contact tracers, who use software the company developed after Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo asked Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff for help.

Tyler Gayheart, the university’s director of digital engagement, says the program has worked so well it has convinced him the university should probably spend more money with Salesforce. “In the long term this is not a pandemic response app, it’s a system for engagement and health and well-being across the university,” he says. Tactics being used to survey and monitor staff and students for coronavirus today could be adapted for other uses tomorrow, such as helping students with anxiety or other health issues, he says.

Kate Leggett, an analyst at Forrester, believes that pattern of pandemic software leading to other business is part of the plan. “As much as Marc Benioff is here to save the world, it’s a savvy business model,” she says. Rivals such as Oracle and Microsoft appear to be using a similar strategy.

Location, location, location

That could make more digitization of everyday life a legacy of the pandemic. Real estate firm CBRE, a customer of Microsoft’s pandemic services, is preparing for that.

CBRE clients trying to reopen their offices are encouraged to consult dashboards Microsoft created to monitor local trends in coronavirus infections. A CBRE app for workers called Host, built on Microsoft’s cloud, has been upgraded with new COVID-19-era features. People can use the app to signal to bosses whether they plan to go to the office, take a symptom survey, and (if they pass) receive a virtual entrance card that integrates with electronic doors. Mobile COVID-19 passes, sometimes linked to testing programs, have been a major part of China’s coronavirus response.

Alex Andel, who leads CBRE’s digital workplace services, says even when the current crisis (finally) ends, going to the office will be a more digital experience. The pandemic “will accelerate use of these tools,” he says. “We’ve gone 10 years into the future.”

Health care is notoriously analog, but the pandemic has provided Alphabet’s Verily a chance to show how that can change quickly if institutions are willing to experiment. The company is one of Alphabet’s collection of “other bets,” such as self-driving car company Waymo, that collectively lost $4.8 billion last year.

Verily’s Healthy at Work service for COVID-19 is the latest addition to Verily’s dizzying list of ventures that includes selling a $195 spoon that compensates for hand tremor, working with Johnson & Johnson on surgical robots, and a recent announcement that it would sell health insurance to employers.

The company jumped into COVID-19 services early, partnering with California’s Department of Public Health in mid-March on an online system that asks a person about coronavirus symptoms and allows them to schedule a test at their nearest site. The system is now active in 15 states.

Learning from diabetes

Vivian Lee, president of health platforms at Verily, said the company built Healthy at Work by drawing on that experience and ideas used for diabetes management in partnership with pharma giant Sanofi, although the drug company said last year it was pulling back on the project.

One of the largest Healthy at Work rollouts is in Alabama. A collaboration between the state government and University of Alabama Birmingham called GuideSafe tapped Verily to attempt to test every student attending a public or private college in the state before they returned to campus for the new school year.

Bob Phillips, executive director of GuideSafe, says the way Verily made it possible for students to submit information, schedule a test, and check in at a testing site for their nasal swab using only their phone, without touching a piece of paper, was impressive. “It’s very consumer focused,” he says.

Despite the marketing, a major COVID-19 outbreak at the University of Alabama campus in Tuscaloosa shows the difficulty of selling services said to help contain the disease. Phillips says Verily also helps power an ongoing program of so-called sentinel testing that tests people at random to monitor the spread of the disease.

When asked if Verily would expand Healthy at Work to cover more than COVID-19, Lee said only that the company planned to offer the program “for as long as customers find it valuable for mitigating the spread of the virus.” Minimal progress on containing the novel coronavirus and the daunting logistics of mass vaccination suggest that Verily’s service could be in demand for a while yet. Parent company Alphabet, which draws more than 80 percent of revenue from data-driven ads, brings suspicion that Verily may also make money in other ways.

Privacy

Bruinooge is among 3,700 Brown students enrolled in Healthy at School. He is generally complimentary of how Verily’s system functions, although he’d like to be able to schedule more than one test at a time. But he’s concerned by the Healthy at Work privacy policy that says Verily may use his data for research and processes data using Google services.

“Why force the entire Brown community to give up our health privacy to Google?” he asks. “Other universities rely on services that emphasize privacy and aren’t Google-related.”

A Verily spokesperson said the company uses data to improve the Healthy at Work program to benefit organizations relying on it and only shares aggregate data with health authorities. “Verily prioritizes privacy, and so personal data collected as part of Healthy at Work will never be sold,” she said.

This story originally appeared on wired.com.



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