In a Friday press conference, US President Donald Trump declared a national state of emergency to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus... with the help of Google, which was news to Google.
"To unleash the full power of the federal government, today I am officially declaring a national emergency," Trump said during his televised briefing.
"Two very big words. The action I am taking will open up access to up to fifty billion dollars of ... very importantly, very important and a large amount of money for states and territories or localities in our shared fight against this disease."
The President thanked Google for apparently rushing to develop some unnamed website to help find and coordinate COVID-19 testing for people in the US. Such a thing is needed because America is behind the curve in rolling out novel coronavirus testing to its population – perhaps for political reasons – and delays to testing means delays to containing the bio-nasty and treating the sick.
"Google is helping to develop a website," Trump said. "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."
"Google has 1,700 engineers working on this right now," he added.
The Register asked Google whether this is accurate. We've not heard back. Perhaps because the President's public reassurance of a soon-to-launch Google-built website was not anticipated by Google.
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According to CNBC, Google CEO Sundar Pichai told employees in an email on Thursday that Google and Verily – a health company run by Google-parent Alphabet – are working on improving a website called Project Baseline so that it can direct high-risk folks to coronavirus testing sites. It's not clear if this is the website Trump was referring to.
Via Twitter, Verily attempted to clarify the situation: "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. We appreciate the support of government officials and industry partners and thank the Google engineers who have volunteered to be part of this effort."
What Verily described does not marry up with what the government promised: the website's functionality to direct folks to COVID-19 tests isn't close to being finished, engineering time is voluntary rather than large scale, and it will target the San Francisco Bay Area first and then maybe a wider area at some point. Whatever form the Google-Verily project takes, there's no word on how patient data will be treated and the degree of privacy that will be offered.
The site described today by the President doesn't exist, and won't for the foreseeable future, The Reg therefore understands.
For what it's worth, Dr Deborah Birks, White House coronavirus response coordinator, presented a chart indicating that the alleged website will allow people to log-in through some undisclosed mechanism and check their symptoms. Those deemed to be symptomatic will be directed to drive-thru testing clinics. The biological samples will be sent to labs to be tested for COVID-19 and the results will be posted to Google's website.
Trump urged states to set up emergency operations centers immediately and asked hospitals to activate their emergency operation centers.
The emergency declaration, he said, confers new authority to the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, to waive rules that might otherwise limit the application of telehealth operations, hinder the ability of doctors to practice across state lines, and impose requirements for hospitalization or admission to nursing homes.
Trump also said student loan interest would be suspended until further notice and that he had directed the Secretary of Energy to purchase oil while the price was low, to fill up the nation's strategic oil reserve.
"No resource will be spared, nothing whatsoever," Trump said of his administration's response to the outbreak.
On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) sent the opposite message when he rejected House Democrats’ emergency response proposal for COVID-19 and told Democratic lawmakers to pass “smaller, non-controversial” spending measures.
Asked about this during the Q&A, Trump said, "We don't think they're giving enough. They're not doing what's right for the country."
Yet after the press briefing concluded, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said an agreement has been reached to pass the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which provides paid emergency leave, with two weeks of paid sick leave, and up to three months of paid family and medical leave.
"This legislation facilitates free coronavirus testing for everyone who needs a test, including the uninsured," Pelosi said.
NPR White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor also asked the President whether he accepted responsibility for disbanding the CDC pandemic office in 2018 – a team that would have, right now, proved rather useful.
Trump responded, "I just think that's a nasty question because [of] what we've done – and Tony [Dr Anthony Fauci] has said numerous times, we saved thousands of lives because of the quick closing. And when you say me, I didn't do it."
And when asked by another reporter if he would take responsibility for the delay in COVID-19 testing in America, the President shot back: "No, I don’t take responsibility at all. Because we were given a set of circumstances, and we were given rules, regulations and specifications from a different time. It wasn’t meant for this kind of event with the kind of numbers that we’re talking about." ®
PS: Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma has pledged to donate 500,000 COVID-19 tests and one million masks to the US, which is the equivalent of kicking in, like, twenty bucks given his net worth is roughly $40,000,000,000.