LOS ANGELES – A line of cars wrapped around the Dodger Stadium parking lot and down an adjacent street on a sweltering, cloudless day last week. In an orderly fashion, across four lanes established by myriad orange cones, vehicles crawled past enormous screens playing instructions, and a greeting from the mayor, on loop, before finally coming to a converted shipping container where PPE-clad volunteers handed out mouth swab testing kits.
Major League Baseball games will start on July 23, but Dodger Stadium has been hosting thousands of Angelenos since May 26, as part of this city’s initiative — the first in the nation — to offer free testing for all residents.
But the site is not run by the city nor a local hospital. Since late March, CORE, which stands for Community Organized Relief Effort, and NGO co-founded by Sean Penn, has been spearheading the effort. The organization, which had no prior experience with testing, has conducted about 820,000 tests across 41 sites and mobile units in California, New York, Illinois, Georgia, North Carolina, Michigan, the City of New Orleans, and in Nation. In Los Angeles County, the group is running the City of L.A.’s six free testing sites, six additional free county sites, and five mobile units, which operate in the area’s most vulnerable communities.
They currently have the ability to test 15,000 people every day in Los Angeles, with results currently coming back from a third-party lab in 24 to 48 hours.
The work comes at a particularly fraught time in the pandemic, as cases surge across the United States. Thirty-one states saw a week-over-week increase, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
On Tuesday, the LA County Department of Public Health announced 2,218 people are currently hospitalized, which is a record high. 26% of those hospitalized are in the ICU and 19% are on ventilators. Overall, the Public Health Department has confirmed at least 159,887 cases and at least 4,154 Covid-19 deaths. The current positive rate on all tests is 8.5%, a decrease of 1.5% from Monday.
“When this all started happening in our own backyard, it felt like very much like in Haiti where it was kind of like, ‘Where’s the government? Where are all these folks that we figured would come in and kind of start doing this stuff?’ And it wasn’t happening. We saw that testing was a huge gap and figured that, operationally, we’re able to take more risks and kind of act fast,” said CORE Co-Founder and CEO Ann Lee, who explained that the group started thinking about testing after reading an L.A. Times story about a doctor who was conducting testing out of his own vehicle.
Lee and her team contacted the man, who was doing about 50 tests per day, to explain his methods. Buoyed by the conversation, they sourced some test kits and engaged a doctor to ensure medical standards would be met. But they still had a problem: PPE.
“My biggest fear and the thing that had me like stay up all night was, am I going to have enough N95s for tomorrow, am I gonna have enough surgical guns to keep my people safe? And that was kind of like the thing that kept me up all night. Because we had the bodies, we had the location, we had the demand… It was a mystery to me how we were going to get PPE,” said Marlina Crespo, CORE’s LA Covid-19 program manager.
“The only way we could do this is if we had PPE, because we had nothing, only our small, tiny funding to kick start this. So Andrew [MacCalla, VP of emergency programs at Direct Relief], of course, as usual, said yes,” Lee said. Since the start of the pandemic, Direct Relief has helped support CORE with multiple shipments of PPE, including N95 masks, coveralls, isolation gowns, sterile gloves, and Vaseline.
With all the needed gear, they approached Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti with their plan. There was initially some mistrust, said Lee, due to the city’s lack of familiarity with CORE, but Penn was able to assuage these initial concerns, partially on the strength of the decade-worth of work J/P HRO, the former name of CORE, had done in Haiti, as well as Puerto Rico and the Bahamas following Hurricanes Maria and Dorian.
Garcetti’s team approved CORE to help support the city’s testing operations. At the time it was approved in late March, the city had only been operating test sites, via the fire department, for two weeks. Expecting a New York City-level surge, EMTs were also on-site, as were public health officials. CORE ran Lincoln Park for a week and was asked to run two additional sites the following week.
“We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel when it was already made,” said Crespo. She said the group learned from the fire department about best practices and was able to incorporate those learnings to start testing quickly.
Yet even with the template, scaling up and maintaining that scale is an ever-present challenge, she said.
“There’s no written handbook. We’re writing the handbook right now. We’ve seen hurricanes, we’ve seen earthquakes. So there are resources that we can fall back to, but we haven’t seen a pandemic like this.”
As they were ramping up, and seeing that Los Angeles was not being hit by a surge at that time, CORE staffers began thinking about how to free up firefighters to fight fires.
“We realized that we wanted to get the badges back into the field for their normal jobs. And if unskilled volunteers are able to make all this happen, we might as well do that,” Crespo said.
A major focus became assembling volunteers. Actors Kristen Bell and Rainn Wilson helped jump-start the publicity via social media — bringing in 2,500 volunteers — and Penn’s national interviews helped drive interest as well. Doug Kennedy, Coordinator of Volunteer and Staff Recruitment, said another important element was creating a way for people confined to their homes to also contribute by helping process applications.
“It was overwhelming at first to think how to raise volunteers when the city was on lockdown,” Kennedy said. “But Sean’s passion to serve the need ignited a fire of volunteers.”
“It’s incredible to see how many Angelenos are here wanting to help their community and get other people free Covid-19 tests. It’s kind of a surreal to think about how many people are coming out here and just trying to do as much as they can for their communities while also in the middle of this pandemic, Crespo said.
The Dodger Stadium site has 70 volunteers daily, with another 250-300 volunteers at the other sites in LA.
At Dodger Stadium, in late afternoon heat amplified by the blacktop, volunteers in PPE helped check people into the site, directed them where to go, handed them test kits, held up signs with instructions, and told people where to deposit the kits.
The site was divided into three areas: hot (higher risk of virus presence), warm, and cold. The hot area includes all areas where people coming for tests and their vehicles are present. A drive-up site, people received their test kits from volunteers in a converted shipping container. Then, they conducted the self-test before dropping the test kits off in a biohazard bag. Volunteers and staff went to a decontamination area, considered the warm area, to put on and take off PPE. The cold area is the administrative area and where volunteers relax.
CORE’s testing work was infused with a $30 million donation from Twitter Founder and CEO Jack Dorsey’s #smartsmall Foundation as well as $1.2 million from the Rockefeller Foundation and $500,000 from the Arthur Blank Foundation.
Eyeing the next step of their response, Lee said the group is working towards expanding access to testing in vulnerable communities and building on some other initiatives needed to fight the pandemic. In Navajo Nation, the group provides transitional housing shelters for families with positive cases, and they are also looking to start new initiatives throughout the country.
“Testing, in a vacuum, is not the panacea. It’s only one piece in containing the spread, and we’re not seeing that yet,” she said.
“Sean and I have a lot of healthy disrespect for assuming that structures will be in place to take care of problems that arise in disasters,” Lee said. “We see time and time again that these disasters and pandemics they kind of overstretch everyone’s systems… We need to push in where we see there’s a gap and figure it out. Even if we’re not health experts, even if we’re not a health organization, there’s a way for us to contribute.”