Ed Note: When natural disasters strike, most of us quickly write checks and say, ‘I wish I could do more.’ At that moment, there is a good chance Sean Penn is on a plane headed toward the wreckage. We saw post-Hurricane Katrina pictures of Penn in a small motorboat, braving the flood waters to pull people off roofs or whatever else they clung to after the levees gave way. After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Penn spent years there, co-creating a foundation that helped tens of thousands who were left with nothing but devastation. He and his CORE partner Ann Lee responded to the coronavirus pandemic by leaning in hard to help administer thousands of COVID-19 tests, focusing especially on economically disadvantaged Angelenos who might not otherwise have a way to find out if they’d been infected. Penn and Lee have created a template which could have a wide spread, in the best possible way. The work they are doing is important and Deadline is hoping our readers might help their efforts. They’ve got a website and it would be swell to see a collective outpouring as this template they’ve established looks to expand to other cities. When we spoke briefly via Zoom today, Penn looked dog tired, though he surely would never admit it. MF
DEADLINE: Of all the ways you could have thought of to help in this pandemic, why did you lean into testing?
PENN: In the idea that doctors have of first do no harm, it seemed very sensible for us to relieve highly skilled first responders, in our case the Los Angeles Fire Department, from having to man these sites. We were able to take their training at the directing of Mayor Garcetti, and be able to pass the training on to our staff and volunteers. Which meant that each site we picked up, 20-25 firefighters were able to get back to their emergency response duties in the city of Los Angeles.
DEADLINE: How big is your group of volunteers and how many tests are they administering on a daily and weekly basis?
PENN: Where we are now, and some of this has to do with the ramp up time in getting on our feet, but in two weeks, we are moving around 30,000 tests and we’re on pace to do 100,000 tests in the city of Los Angeles per month. That’s an ongoing program. We are starting to diversify into other areas of the state. I’m in Napa, California this morning and will be branching off into some of the lesser served urban communities from here. We hope to take that same model to a national level. CORE itself as a direct implementer isn’t going to be the answer to the universe and the capacity won’t be there, but the real idea is to set up a very replicable model, one that is adaptable. Because each model is different, from rural to suburban to urban, and whatever cultural, socioeconomic, and local governments’ ability to integrate with NGOs or community foundations. We want to set up a model that is adaptable to all of the above. I think our key goal is to do that and integrate with local government.
DEADLINE: The people you’ve given these tests they otherwise might not be able to afford or even know how to find, what is the biggest benefit they are getting from what you’re doing here?
LEE: The folk that are coming through have the benefit of getting this for free, and very quickly. The fact we are doing it at scale is a huge factor. It is great to know whether or not you have it, though as we’ve said over and over again, that only gives you a certain window until you might get infected. So the higher volume of people who can be tested on a regular basis is so critical for us, to have some understanding of exactly what is happening, and how big the spread is. The folk that are uninsured, potentially undocumented, these are the areas we are focusing on. They’re an under-served population. And because of systemic issues, they are going to be a lot more vulnerable to the virus, so these testing sites hit those two nails on the head. To understand what the situation is on the ground to basically plan for the future, but allow the most vulnerable to be safer and aware of their situation.
PENN: If I could highlight something from what Ann said: the people who come in to be tested at our sites, also benefit as we all do, in contributing to our partners at the National Surveillance Bank so that we can play our role in helping the scientific community, who’ll be the ones who give us a final freedom from this damned thing.
DEADLINE: Whether I stood on a line or pulled up in my car and I took the test, how long before I know if I have the virus or not?
PENN: That’s variable and it has been going up and down as labs increase their capacities. We at one point had started at a two day, 48-hour result period, and we’re still identifying where the hold ups are that make it as long as 10 days. It should be very transparent that your test result has as much integrity as your will to be isolated in the period between test and result. So it’s anywhere between two to ten days, depending on where you are located.
DEADLINE: We have been writing pieces on what it will take to get Hollywood production back on track. Clearly, no one can feel safe until until we have a method where someone can take a test, wait and be told whether or not they are allowed to come to work. How far are we from testing that can produce results in 45 minutes or so?
PENN: Let’s be clear that there is a variety of levels of integrity in test kits. But you boil them down to two principal kinds of tests. One is what CORE is involved in, now. Positive or negative. Then there is the serology test, what they’re calling the antibody test. The antibody tests, to date have been dominated by tests that will detect a variety of coronaviruses and are not targeted to the COVID-19. Now, from what we understand, there are very credible and specific kits that can detect COVID-19. But as you probably have been hearing, the answers are going to follow science. And science has not gotten definitive answers on even whether there is immunity associated with this particular virus. Following the tracking of other similar viruses, a likelihood is that there is some level of immunity. But we don’t know yet how long it lasts or if it is a lifelong ticket. The best answer a layman can give you — and that’s who you are talking to now, but one who has the benefit of access to some of the foremost experts consulting with us — is there is not an answer to that question. And that goes into the broader question of opening the economy and dealing with the current emergency. Of course, there are good arguments for both. But what we have, if you take a look at what happened to Canada yesterday…this horrible shooting of 16 people? Well, there, we know where to put our rage. That simplifies it. But with this virus, we currently have the equivalent of an active shooter that has killed over 40,000 Americans and wounded hundreds of thousands. This is an active shooter. I’m going to leave the rest to others and fortunately, we started our work in California with the extraordinary governance of Gov. [Gavin] Newsom and mayors like Mayor [London] Breed and Mayor [Eric] Garcetti in Los Angeles. I’m going to defer to them to speak on the political picture. But we do have to recognize, whatever position we take on it, that this is the equivalent of an active shooter who is hitting a lot of targets but is specifically targeting communities of color and the elderly.
DEADLINE: What’s the biggest challenge in training volunteers to safely administer these tests?
LEE: Getting them off the line to take a break. Our volunteers and staff have been phenomenal. They are so committed. The public reaction from people who thank them for doing this work, is very overwhelming. Our crew feels like they are actually making a difference in their communities, which they are. So getting them to take a break has been difficult. In terms of safety and security, they’re not in direct contact with anybody…they’re demonstrating, through a windshield and the safety of PPE, so the chance of spread is very limited.
DEADLINE: Final question; Sean you’ve done Hollywood proud here. If I asked you, what is the biggest thing that people in Hollywood who will read this today can do to help this cause, what would you say?
PENN: That’s actually pretty simple for me to say. Our organization truly would not exist without the support of the entertainment community that has been so involved with us since the very beginning. We all know the deep passion and generosity that so many have, and as a result one of the things we see happen is the focus gets very spread out. When our organization began, we grew to a level of excellence I’m very proud of, because of the talent of people like Ann and all of the Haitian volunteers we had in the first place. What we did, philosophically, is look for a mother ship, and we’re doing that as an organization now in Los Angeles with the mayor’s office, and the LA Fire Department. So if your passion is testing, I would guide you to CORE. If your passion is food, I would guide you to World Central Kitchen, Chef José Andrés’ organization. There are highly functioning organizations and I think when it gets too fragmented and everybody’s doing their own thing — and I understand how it happens — then we fall into creating our own bureaucracy. Things slow down and overlap occurs.
So I’m definitely volunteering CORE, the mother ship of testing, for their support, and I’m encouraging them to take that thing they’re most passionate about…it might be feeding the elderly or the front line people…but just consider the general notion to focus our efforts as one.
DEADLINE: For CORE, would it be best for people in Hollywood to donate, or to volunteer in LA, or look into starting a chapter in another city based on the template you’ve established?
PENN: I’m going to say, all of the above. And I will guide them to our website and let their better angels decide what they’ll be most committed to, and sustainably so, until we get done with this particular beast.