COVID Testing for Production in the Age of Omicron

Nearly two years into the pandemic, COVID testing is an essential part of production as companies of all sizes look to comply with protocols, keep sets safe and contain risk. The challenge for testing labs is to keep up with the ever-changing variants. Currently, it’s the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

Even fully vaccinated people who believed the shots were a step back to normalcy have been watching anxiously as Omicron has jumped from 12.6 percent to 58.6 percent of COVID-19 cases by Christmas. While early research suggests Omicron may cause milder illnesses, testing remains an important tool for productions to keep their cast and crew safe.

Here’s what production companies need to know about testing in the age of Omicron… and what experts say you should do if a member of your cast or crew test positive.

How long to wait to test after exposure?

Every viral disease has an incubation period. That’s the time from when you were exposed to a pathogen to when it can be detected. Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends waiting five after exposure to COVID before taking a test. Early data suggests that it takes only around two to three days for people to start showing symptoms after exposure to  Omicron. In addition, Rachael Piltch-Loeb, a researcher at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, says that tests seem to be picking up the virus within about two days of exposure. Although that speaks to the quick transmissibility of the virus, the upside is that it may take under five days to get a positive result, allowing productions to make changes.

Which test to use?

Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests are the gold standard for detecting COVID. These tests, which look for the presence of genetic material from the virus, are highly sensitive and unlikely to have false positives. Given how quickly Omicron can spread, productions should use labs that offer PCR tests with results in less than 24 hours.

Rapid antigen tests are less reliable. Studies have shown that rapid tests overall are able to catch up to only 85 percent of COVID cases. They detect pieces of proteins from the virus and work best when you have a higher viral load. That is why they’re used when people are already symptomatic. Check the CDC website, which lists the best rapid antigen tests that have been authorized for emergency use in the U.S.

Ultimately, choosing a test comes down to risk tolerance. PCR tests are the most accurate but rapid antigen tests have their place, particularly when someone is symptomatic. It depends on the time frame you are working in. When there’s more than 24 hours before the start of production, do a PCR test. For same day tests, do a PCR test in addition to a rapid antigen test. That way you’ll have an immediate result but also PCR confirmation within 24 hours. But to be clear, it’s always best to test cast and crew 24 – 72 hours prior to the start of work.

If you test positive, what do you do?

Each variant changes the guidance slightly. On December 27, the CDC issued new guidelines for people testing positive for COVID:

  • Stay home or self isolate for 5 days.
  • If you have no symptoms or your symptoms are resolving after 5 days, you can leave your house.
  • Continue to wear a mask around others for 5 additional days.

It’s important to always confirm a positive test. If the person is vaccinated and doesn’t have any symptoms, follow up with a second rapid test later that day or the next. If both tests are positive, they pose an infectious risk. When the second test is negative, then the results are inconclusive. They should get a PCR test after that to be certain.

When a cast or crew member tests positive during a work day, contact tracing becomes critical. Production must notify anyone that person had close contact with from the previous two days. In some cases, that might mean a temporary shutdown of the set to test all individuals.

Who pays for the tests?

In film and video production, it is the client’s responsibility to pay for the tests. Cast and crew are either reimbursed for the test costs or payment is already in place with the lab. If a cast or crew member wants additional tests, the production company decides who will pick up that expense. As testing is often an uncontrolled expense (i.e. how many tests are necessary), it is listed as a cost-plus budget item.

COVID test prices depend on type of test, test location and how quickly you need to have the results. Here are some current ranges:

  • Rapid Antigen – $75 – $100/test
  • PCR (24-hour turnaround) – $150 – $175/test
  • PCR (1-hour turnaround) – $250 and up/test

Production can also schedule a concierge nurse to come to set for testing at an even higher amount. Although Congress passed laws mandating free COVID-19 testing, the scheduling and result wait times can range anywhere from two to five days. When time is a factor, it is best to schedule your own test.

While solutions to the COVID crisis have shifted to vaccinations, testing remains key to combating the spread of the virus. But the CDC and experts point out that some protection against the virus is always better than none. If there’s any time to get vaccinated, this is the time. You’re going to want that protection in the weeks ahead as Omicron and other eventual variants surge across the country.

 

The Role of the COVID Compliance Officer

If we told you in 2020 that a pandemic-specific compliance officer would be the most critical positions on set you would have probably rolled your eyes. But with COVID continuing to disrupt productions, COVID Compliance Officers (CCOs) have become a key part to keeping productions safe.

In most cases, public health and union regulations require production companies to have a certified COVID Compliance Officer present on set from the very first scout days to tail-lights on the final day of shooting. But depending on what producer you talk to, the role of a CCO can have different meanings.

Some people think they’re licensed nurses, while others see them as glorified PAs. In this post, we’ll define exactly what a COVID Compliance Officer is and their responsibilities.

What is a COVID Compliance Officer?

A COVID Compliance Officer oversees coronavirus safety protocols on set. The job is loosely defined, usually requiring only the completion of a two-hour course. The title varies from COVID Manager or COVID Assistant to Health and Safety Coordinator.

A CCO is hired at the same time as other crew members. They sit in on pre-production meetings because COVID compliance touches every aspect of production – from locations, crew size and catering to how to set up the cameras.

Job responsibilities include administering COVID tests, sourcing safety equipment (called PPE or Personal Protective Equipment) and enforcing social distancing. On larger shoots, cast and crew are split into different zones (A, B and C), based on their contact with talent. The CCO is responsible for making sure these groups don’t mix. They have to intervene if crew members crowd together and don’t wear their masks properly. CCO’s are also required to maintain health and safety documentation and safeguard each crew member’s privacy.

Depending on where the production is shooting, the job can get even more complicated. Every shoot location has its challenges. Small sets or rooms are challenging for COVID compliance. Large studios are best as they provide plenty of room to social distance and normally have good air handling systems. But if a production is constantly moving locations, more planning is required to scout places with COVID protocols in mind.

Day in the Life of a CCO

Work often begins several days before a shoot begins. Check-in procedures are given to the producer to be included with the daily call sheet. These procedures include a medical history questionnaire for each crew member, screen for COVID symptoms and adhere to general state and local protocols.

Testing commences 72 hours prior to crew coming to set and everyone should have a documented negative COVID test result. Any crew with positive results will self-isolate and be scheduled for additional tests.

The night before filming, the CCO prepares PPE kits which will have masks and sanitizers at a minimum. They show up at least an hour before call time to ensure that sanitizing stations are set up, signage is posted (proper hand washing, physical distancing guidelines, etc) and check-in policies are in place.

All crew entering set are screened by the CCO during check-in. PPE kits are distributed and temperature is taken with a contactless thermometer. The CCO should also remind every person of the importance of proper mask usage and hand washing technique as well as frequent hand sanitizing and physical distancing in a general safety meeting at the start of every shoot day.

From there, they monitor every aspect of the production for proper safety, making sure everyone has their protective equipment on, sanitizing between scenes, and maintaining the proper occupancy for the square footage. After production wraps, CCOs stick around to disinfect and clean the set before going home to start prepping for the next day.

Set Medic vs. CCO

Health and safety positions are new to the entertainment industry as we have not had to respond to such a destructive pandemic since the 1918 Influenza Pandemic. A few organizations were prepared to respond such as National Set Medics and IATSE Local 80.

However, the job of a Set Medic and COVID Compliance Officer are very different, though both must have a medical understanding of the coronavirus. They work together to provide the strongest scope of safety on set.

CCOs understand the health and safety protocols in their particular county and state, as well as the requirements of various unions (SAG/AFTRA, DGA, IATSE). They stay updated on guidance from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) regarding transmission and how it affects protocols. The job of a Set Medic is to respond to emergencies and triage on site. A medic is not allowed to take on a secondary responsibility on set.

Why? Medical negligence. A medic cannot be engaged in a secondary activity when they are acting in the capacity of a medic. A CCO can have a second responsibility as long as it’s not that of a medic.

Challenges

The position has many challenges. Some productions ignore the authority of the CCO altogether. A safe set works best when there is respect for the CCO position and adherence to health and safety protocols within the entire production team.

Even when productions implement safety protocols on set, a 100% safe and secure production is not guaranteed. When there are concerns about safety, the COVID Compliance Officer has the power to discipline, or even fire, health and safety protocol violators. In worst case scenarios, they can even stop a production. Given that shutdowns on large productions can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a day, that’s a huge responsibility.

No matter the size of the production, nothing is more important than protecting your cast and crew. Productions can’t cut corners or break rules that endanger cast and crew. Prevention in a time of a pandemic is expensive but positions like a COVID Compliance Officer are the best strategy to keeping your set safe.