In the nascent stages of discussions about a production restart just weeks into the Hollywood shutdown, one of the first things about which there was virtually unanimous consensus was that testing would be a cornerstone of any plan to safely resume shooting.
And yet, in the current final stage of setting guidelines to get cameras rolling again, testing surprisingly has become one of the biggest stumbling blocks in reaching a consensus between studios and the Hollywood guilds and unions so production can resume.
The issue is not whether there should be testing — both sides are in agreement on that — but how exactly it should be implemented, including frequency and type of tests used.
The problem was exposed when The Bold and the Beautiful last week restarted production at TV City but was forced to temporarily suspend it after one day of shooting to adjust testing protocols. I hear there were a number of positive or inconclusive test results that were deemed unreliable, creating a chaotic situation that led to the production pause for testing to be sorted out. Shooting was slated to resume today but was pushed by a day.
“The Health Department had some additional questions about the lab TV City provided The Bold and the Beautiful with last week, which produced several false positives,” a spokesperson for the series told Deadline.
The major Hollywood studios, unions and guilds collaborated on the June 1 White Paper for reopening in a pre-vaccine environment, which emphasized “regular, periodic testing” with protocols to be developed by employers “in conjunction with, and approved by, the Unions and Guilds.”
The unions and guilds on June 12 released their detailed safety protocols. The DGA led the union effort to create the guidelines, based in part on models by Columbia University’s Jeffrey Shaman regarding the effectiveness of various testing protocols. The models show reduced risk of acquiring infection on set with weekly testing, further risk reduction when testing every three days, and its elimination with testing daily.
As a result, DGA, SAG-AFTRA, IATSE and the Teamsters require that, in addition to every member of the cast and crew being tested for active COVID-19 infection before their first day of work, for performers “a higher testing frequency of at least three times a week at minimum for them as well as those with whom they come into close contact.” (Those working in production offices with physical distancing and PPE are required to be tested at a minimum of once a week.)
The very high frequency of testing requested by the guilds, combined with the myriad largely unproven tests available (many of them of questionable accuracy), has created a sticking point in the studios’ negotiations with the unions and the guilds, with some studio sources indicating that the extensive testing requirements may not be feasible.
The nasal swab test is considered the most accurate, but it also is the most invasive as it activates a person’s lachrymal and gag reflex. It causes quite a bit of discomfort, as best described by Anna Davis Abel in a video featured on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight; in it, she says, right after being tested, that “they just pulled out my brain out through my nostril,” and compares the sensation to her brain being impaled. (You can watch it below at the 6-minute mark.)
A far more palatable option is a saliva-based test. While there have been some promising lab results about that type of test, those are considered less accurate than the nasal swab ones.
I hear The Bold and the Beautiful, whose experience restarting production is now being studied by other shows to help avoid potential pitfalls, used saliva tests, which triggered the confusing results. I hear the show has since switched to nasal swab tests whose accuracy could be over 90%.
A rep for the show said today that production company Bell-Phillip Television has “changed labs and has resolved all problems” related to testing.
With questions surrounding the accuracy of testing — a recent study of five commonly used coronavirus tests revealed detection in the range of 60%-90% of infections — there is uncertainty about return-to-work safety protocols, built on the premise that “Testing is the key to the resumption of production,” as the DGA, SAG-AFTRA, IATSE and the Teamsters put it in their proposal.
Unless the pandemic starts slowing down, which does not appear to be in the cards for Los Angeles in the coming months, the casts of TV series and the crew closest to them may have to be subjected to painful nasal swab tests multiple times a week every single week to help keep the set safe and production going.
But even that may be enough as the incubation period for the coronavirus is 5 days on average and as long as 14 days, so a cast or a crew member could produce multiple negative tests and still be infected.