As television production has resumed in recent months, producers are grappling with the same dilemma as every employer: How to get everyone back on set without getting anyone sick. The difference with TV is that everyone’s watching — and they’d really like to know when Succession is coming back. Thus, a new production role has emerged in response to the pandemic: the COVID Compliance Officer — or Infection Prevention Coordinator, or COVID Producer. There is no official title for this position, nor any specific requirements to hold it. Sets must have a “COVID person” but, for now at least, that person can be anyone the producers deem adequate.
That ambiguity has led to confusion and an array of CCOs with varying backgrounds. Some productions hire union set medics, many of whom have experience with COVID-19, having spent the shutdown working in hospitals. Other productions hire CCOs with no training beyond a two-hour online course. There’s a growing industry of companies offering COVID-19 services and CCO certificate programs — not to be confused with a certification program. Those don’t exist. There is no formal regulation on COVID-19 safety, nor any consensus on what makes a set safe, or if that’s even possible. But everyone wants to keep the show on the road. Vulture spoke with some of the people trying to figure out how.
Set medic on a streaming series
While their high-profile show is on hiatus, this set medic has been working on various commercials, political ads, and scripted series — sometimes as a set medic, and sometimes as a “COVID person.”
There are all kinds of titles for it: COVID Compliance Officer, ICP — I’m not even sure what “ICP” stands for, but they keep throwing acronyms at me. As the COVID person, I’m there in the morning to put up signs saying “Wash Your Hands,” “Wear Your Mask.” I set up an area for everyone to line up in the morning for temperature checks. I put up little 6-foot markers so people keep social distance. Generally we have assistants that walk around with — you know those super-soaker squirt guns? The big cannon ones? They have those, full of hand sanitizer. They’ll walk through doing all the tables and chairs and communal areas. I was on a shoot last week, and they had people who would go into the bathroom after each person used it, with a super-soaker full of bathroom cleaner.
Some productions are very proactive. Some are a little lax. Some think that having a PA do all that work is going to save everything but — it’s hard. People will continuously pull their mask down, forget they have it off. You have a safety meeting, and you tell them: “If you need to take a break, step about 20 feet away from people.” Then you find tight-knit groups of people smoking together, and it’s like, “What are you guys doing?”
When I was working on the set of large streaming service’s show* pre-shutdown, the lead actor got sick. Apparently four people — two from the crew and two cast members — later died from COVID. It’s a good feeling being back to work, but jobs work differently now. We’ve been getting an awful lot of condolence emails this year from the union about people who have been passing on.
Set medic and union representative
This RN with over three decades of on-set experience spent two months treating ER patients during the height of New York’s COVID-19 spike. Since production resumed, she’s been working on and off set to try and establish standards for safety protocol — and COVID Compliance Officers.
There is no such thing as a real, verified COVID Officer certification. It’s just something made up to, I guess, generate revenue. These certificates are to create a way for people with no medical background to get involved. That’s honestly been one of the hugest drawbacks. Productions are using these “COVID teams” because they’re the cheapest option. The kids walking around, wiping things down — they’re not the issue. It’s the people at the heads of these teams. They’re trying to assess temperatures and explain how to wear PPE, and a lot of the information they have is completely incorrect. I’ll tell the crew one thing and they’ll tell them something else — or try to explain protocol to me. They’ll say things that are totally mythical, and don’t seem to know there’s no science behind it. The fact that they can walk up to someone with 35 years experience and tell them what to do — it’s distressing. And dangerous.
One of the most disheartening situations was a production where there was a famous talent who’d flown in from a hotspot state. Production said that the governor had issued a waiver for this person, so they didn’t have to quarantine. I emailed asking for documentation, and they wrote back saying the governor’s office doesn’t provide documentation on this. So this talent came to set — walked into a public building and up to the floor — with no mask. And the whole crew is standing there like, “What’s happening right now.” I told the producers, “You need to walk up to her right now and tell her she has to wear a mask.” Their justification was, “Well, when they’re on camera they don’t have to wear a mask, and we’re going to be filming her all day, so…” That’s how they got around that. I was scheduled for two more jobs with them, but after that, I was summarily disinvited.
Though her background is in performance and creative roles, this person has also been working as a Certified COVID Compliance Officer since July.
I took two courses. One was given by the City of Atlanta — I did it online, of course. It was free but it was super basic. Then I took one that L.A. County had for $50. It was the most comprehensive information I’d gotten — they told us where to get testing, and they gave us a resource kit with signage for sets.
COVID compliance is expensive and laborious — if you do it right. I’ve had friends who were on sets where they didn’t even take temperatures. I was like, “Wait, what? And you did it?” That’s the other thing — all the sets I’ve been on require you to sign a waiver saying you won’t sue them if you get COVID. I understand it’s my own risk, but I’m not going to sign a waiver unless I know you’re at least trying to minimize that risk as much as possible.
Set medic on a traveling food show
This medic and EMS worker is now doing COVID compliance on a food series for a major network, shooting on location in several different states.
If you’re working for one of the five major networks — ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, or Netflix — you’re going to have certain protocols. But if you’re on an independent film that hasn’t been bought by a studio, they’re trying to spend as little money as they can. And testing is extremely expensive. Our set has 16 people, and it costs $7,000 to test all 16 of us three times a week. Everyone’s coming up with their own rules. Some productions are going overboard with protections — others I wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole.
A traveling production can be safer. When you’re on set, you are the safest you are going to be your entire day, because you’re in your bubble of people that you know do not have COVID. On our crew, we will have a social hour once a week, because you need that mental break. But we keep it within the bubble. What is hurting productions is when crew members go out and live their life.
We have a checklist linked to our daily call sheet. You get an email and answer basic questions: Have you had a cold? Have you had any of these symptoms? As a paramedic I’d like to think I can spot when somebody is actually having symptoms, and I do try to monitor. On some productions all you have to do is pass the screening and not have a fever when you arrive. I’ve known of some people who’ve been sick, faked the screening, and popped some Tylenol an hour before getting to set to bring down the fever so they can work.
Some people have been saying it’s more important to have production experience than medical experience for this role, which frustrates me. What you have is people who have not been able to get ahead in production roles, and they’re like, “Let me go pay $50 for a certification, and now I can say I’m a COVID Officer, and make $600 or $700 a day.” Just because they took a one-hour course. I’ve seen people arguing that health professionals should not be in those COVID positions, and I’m just like, y’all are idiots.
Set medic on a premium cable drama
This medic of 30 years works on an established cable drama that recently resumed filming with a CCO on set.
We’re supposed to be kept 6 feet apart on set. Every day I see people well within that spacing, and our so-called COVID Compliance Officer will be standing right across from them doing nothing. Not once has she separated people. She’s on her phone most of the time. Then she disappears from set. She’ll be there for the safety meeting to give her speech, then she’ll stick around for a bit and then you just don’t see her. No one knows where she is. She has these COVID PAs that walk around in fluorescent vests, but they don’t enforce anything. These are kids they just hired off the street. They’re supposed to be cleaning high-touch areas, but no one’s doing that. I mean, if someone goes to the bathroom, you don’t know what they did in there — and they’re coming back and forth, touching doors and everything. I saw a guy yesterday pull down his mask, blow his nose, put his mask back up, and never went to go wash his hands or change his mask or anything. There’s not much you can do except say something — but technically, that’s not my job.
I told the producers, “This is a problem. Once the crew sees she’s not taking her job seriously, they’re not going to take her seriously. They’re not going to take the protocol seriously. Someone’s going to get sick and we’ll be shut down again.” But the reality is they don’t know exactly what she should be doing — and they’re busy doing their jobs. So they’re not really running behind her. She seems to be her own boss.
COVID Compliance Officer who runs a Facebook Group for CCOs
This CCO (who is also a script supervisor, associate director, and producer) runs a forum for others doing COVID compliance.
One of my jobs as CCO is finding the testing company. You have to know how to screen these labs. The show For Life was shut down due to inaccurate testing. People came up positive, but it turned out the lab made errors. So I ask a ton of questions about their testing process and their thresholds, because every lab has a different one. I can tell when they’re annoyed and I’m like, that’s not the lab for me. That’s why you can’t just take one, quick $50 course. Those people are winding up in circumstances where they don’t have the necessary knowledge. Every once in a while we get someone posting on our Facebook page in a panic: “I don’t know what to do in this situation!” So at least we have that educational forum to help.
I’ve taken several COVID courses, and supplemented with things like Johns Hopkins’ contact-tracing course, Red Cross first aid and bloodborne pathogen training. So I have some understanding, but I know my limitations. I sure as heck am not going to medically assess someone. We’re all anxiously waiting for the labor unions to create a training program for this position. It seems like they’re taking their time. It’ll have to be the industry that speaks up and says what kind of knowledge a CCO needs and whether or not they have to have a medical background.
Producers do have to do their research on who they’re hiring, but they themselves are unsure of what this position should look like. Some aren’t doing their due diligence to make sure their CCOs are up to par. Some are trying to get away with some things. A friend of mine was working on a set where all the CCO did was set up a table, put the PPE on it, and leave a sign that said, “Take what you need.” No temperature screenings. No testing, nothing. That’s when the producer purposefully hires an inadequately trained CCO, just so that the set appears safe.
These stories have been edited and condensed.
9/25: This piece has been updated to clarify the timeline regarding a production’s pre-shutdown COVID cases.
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*This story originally mentioned the streaming service by name in a way that could be interpreted as suggesting negligence on their part, which was not the case, nor the intent of our source. As such, we have removed it.