• Nonprofit organization CORE is working with the government of Los Angeles to provide free drive-through coronavirus testing and hopes to create a model that can be replicated throughout the country. 
  • The organization is managing five testing sites in California and has administered 20,000 tests since the initiative began March 30.
  • CORE cofounder Sean Penn says there is no bravado in not observing social distancing because it is not about personal risk. He says if we rebel against social distancing “we are not honoring the dead. We’re not honoring those nurses and doctors who are so heroic in that hospital.”
  • Visit CORE’s website to find out what you can do to help with its COVID-19 relief effort.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Nonprofit CORE is working with the city of Los Angeles to provide drive-through coronavirus testing. Business Insider spoke with the cofounder and CEO Ann Lee and cofounder and chairman Sean Penn about how these efforts could be replicated in other cities and what you can do to help. Following is a transcript of the video.

Sara Silverstein: First of all, thank you both for the work that you’re doing. And just to get us started, can you tell us how you got this initiative going?

CORE Founder SeanPenn and LAFD Dr. Marc Eckstein

Sean Penn, founder, CORE, and Dr. Marc Eckstein, medical director and commander of the EMS Bureau of the Los Angeles Fire Department.


Sean Penn: Because we had an existing infrastructure as a disaster and emergency response organization, starting in Haiti after the Haiti earthquake, taking us through the cholera epidemic there and then jumping to spread to other areas of operations, as it were, in the hurricane belt in the United States.

It was a natural for us to see what gap we could fill, what place we could supplement. And so what happened is, because we happen to be in Los Angeles, which I hope will be a model, as expansion can happen, is we were able, as an NGO, to be plugged into an existing system that Mayor Garcetti and the Los Angeles Fire Department had already established.

Ann can speak to the mechanism of it better than I can. That’s essentially what happened.

Silverstein: And who are the workers, Ann, who are taking care of getting this testing done?

Ann Lee: So one of the big things that’s allowed us to not just increase the intake of people who are coming through the test sites is it’s mostly because of the types of tests that we’re actually using. They’re self-administered oral swabs that you can do in a car with the windows up. So that means that you don’t need trained medical staff to actually demonstrate the use of these kits.

CORE Staff at Drive Thru COVID 19 Testing Site in LA 2

CORE staff at COVID-19 drive-thru testing site in Los Angeles.


So right now, we have everywhere between servers and people from the Peace Corps, actresses — a lot of people from the communities where the test site is, actually where the test sites are. We’re trying to hire as much locally as possible.

Silverstein: And are you taking over some of the sites that the city was running before and allowing people that were running those sites to go back to work? And who were those workers?

Penn: Yeah, that is significantly the Los Angeles Fire Department. So they train our staff to do what they were doing, which is a very narrow skillset lane, and a competent person can be trained in that very quickly. That allows the fire department to redeploy to the streets and stations around the city and respond to the public health issue and all of the other issues that they have to point their skillsets at.

Silverstein: And how many tests have you been able to administer so far in California?

Penn: Ann, do you know what the total is?

Lee: So far, as at the end of yesterday, it was over 15,000 tests, and we’ve been operating for about two full weeks. Maybe a little over two weeks. [Editor’s note: We received an update from CORE immediately after the interview stating that CORE had administered 20,000 tests since March 30.]

Silverstein: And where do the tests come from?

Lee: So the tests are coming from the mayor’s office. They’ve created a very robust system of intake and patient registration, which then comes to us onsite. So we have the test kits, as well as the list of people who are registered for that day coming through the company, as well as the mayor’s office.

Silverstein: And who are you testing, and is there anything that these people need to know? Like who should be coming or what they should be doing after they’re getting tested?

Penn: Yeah, who should be coming is anybody who hasn’t been tested at this point. The most vulnerable will be prioritized, but we’re finding that there are lull periods, even at these sites, to be tested. And I think what people need to know is that they are a major partner in this, a major force multiplier. First by quarantining amongst their close family or themselves in social distance, but secondly, in testing.

Not only are they able to be notified if they are a positive and isolate immediately from and allow contact tracing to happen through those they’ve had contact with. That’s a major part of it, but it’s also the surveillance, the data collection, that gives the broader picture for the scientific community to be able to do their job. We need for this kind of civilian army to come in and sign up and get tested.

Silverstein: And how close are we to being able to allow everyone to get tested, with or without symptoms? In the country, not just in LA?

Penn: Yeah, I don’t think we’re close at all, and this is where I don’t have to advocate much in this issue, because we have an extraordinary governor and extraordinary mayors in this state who can do that. But I do think that on a federal strategy, on a national strategy level, we’ve really got to up our game on a Hoover Dam level, when it comes to the Defense Production Act.

We are the United States. We can put a man on the moon. We can damn well make N95 masks, et cetera, en masse. And I think once that happens, not only does that represent public health support, but it also is current-time real jobs.

Silverstein: And what is the bottleneck that you’re facing, as far as being able to scale up to a huge number in California? Is it the number of tests? Is it money? Is it volunteers? Is it PPE?

Penn: I don’t think-

Lee: Go ahead. I would say that the biggest bottlenecks that we’re having right now are access to test kits, which I think is ramping up as things progress, but also PPEs. And I think it’s a huge opportunity right now for us to ask the private sector. If you can and when you can, transform your production to focus on PPEs. That’s going to help us out a lot, because we can only go as far as safe as we are.

Silverstein: And what recommendation do you have for other organizations that would like to use you as a model to help out in their cities? Are you creating some sort of playbook?

Penn: Yes, we’re creating a manual that is adaptable at the directives of those communities. So there are two target areas that we are going to work ourselves, as implementers, through a grant with the Rockefeller Foundation. But that impact is not going to be significant without other organizations modeling it with all other municipalities.

So we will present our lessons learned, those things that we thought worked well with our leadership here, partnering with an NGO, in this case, CORE. But it should be a kind of idiot’s guide, and there’s not too many people who know more about needing an idiot’s guide than I do. And so we’re going to do it so that it’s really, truly replicable on the terms of that area.

Silverstein: And Ann, what are you learning on the ground, from the people who are coming in to get tested? What are they worried about? What are their fears? What are their questions?

Lee: I think it’s just not knowing whether or not they’re putting their loved ones in danger. I think we all experience that, even us onsite. When my grandma passed away just recently, I wasn’t able to see her or attend her funeral, because I just didn’t know. I didn’t know where to get tested. If we had this test site earlier on, it would have changed things, and this is the only way we can get some sort of normalcy back up and running. And again, having the fire department and the mayor’s office so ahead of the curve for us is phenomenal.

Silverstein: And CORE was started in 2016 by both of you. [Editor’s note: CORE was founded in 2010, cofounder Ann Lee was named CEO in 2016.] What was the original purpose of CORE, and how does this fit into its mission?

Penn: Well, we had started, as I say, in Haiti, and from a disaster relief organization, we had moved also into development. In terms of our investments in the United States, it’s principally been in disaster relief. So our overall goal now is singularly focused on COVID-19, because we don’t want to see a COVID-20. For those who don’t know, the 19 means 2019, when this started to affect us.

We’re going to put all our efforts there, and not only here. But we continue activities in Haiti, Bahamas, Puerto Rico, et cetera. But we really need a lot of support to do that, because we are a nonprofit.

Silverstein: And both of you have been involved in so many humanitarian efforts with so many disasters around the world. How does what you’re seeing now in America with Coronavirus compare to some of the tragedies you’ve seen in the past?

Penn: Ann?

Lee: I would say, in a sense, with Haiti, being part of the people who have been affected just as much as the responders. I think that is a huge similarity. All the firefighters, everyone out there that’s battling this, is also dealing with the impacts of it in their own lives. So in that sense, it’s been similar.

In terms of a difference, I think just being in our own back yards and having the level of expertise and incredible partnerships with the fire department and the mayor’s offices has been beyond what we’ve ever seen.


CORE founder Sean Penn and a Direct Relief volunteer unload PPE supplies provided by Direct Relief.


Penn: We’ve also had great support from partners, Direct Relief among them. But I think in terms of one of the essential differences between anything that I’ve ever been involved with, including in cholera, where we had access, internally, to the solutions one needed to get hydrated. Where we weren’t at particular risk.

But in terms of just civilian force multiplier I talk about, we have to really understand that there’s no bravado in this one. It’s not about taking a personal risk. It’s the risk that you become to other people in transmission. So when we go out and we see people not observing social distance, we have to remind them. I think we have an obligation to just politely … Everybody is rewiring. It’s very difficult behavioral change, but if we rebel against it, we are not honoring the dead. We’re not honoring those nurses and doctors who are so heroic in that hospital. And we’re not really being patriotic, and I think it’s a time for that. No matter what patriotic means to you, it is really a time to join, and not at the hands.

Silverstein: And one of our viewers is asking how Native American communities that need to reach out to CORE can reach out. And I think more generally, for all of our viewers, how can any specific community that could use CORE’s help reach out?

Lee: Actually, we are speaking with the Navajo Nation, as well as our partners in Robeson County with the Lumbee tribe. They are our prioritized partners to be able to get the testing sites out there.

So we haven’t finalized anything yet, but they are definitely on our radar, and they can reach out to us through our website, for sure, if there’s any others that we aren’t already in discussions with.

Silverstein: And we have shared your website with our viewers, and we will continue sharing it. But how can people help? I think there’s a lot of anxiety that people who are locked in their homes and they see people doing incredible work and they want to be able to do something. Where do you see the most need, in general, for people who are stuck at home?

Penn: I’ll jump in for a moment, Ann. You can complement this in whatever way you see fit. I think first of all, they have to understand that they are … In our situation, we were obligated to get involved in the way that we are because we had an infrastructure to offer it existing. I think the biggest, most essential part of what they can do is continuing to isolate as much as possible.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti listens as California Governor Gavin Newsom speaks in front of the hospital ship US Naval Ship Mercy that arrived into the Port of Los Angeles on Friday, March 27, 2020, to provide relief for Southland hospitals overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic. Admiral John Gumbleton, U.S. Navy stands behind Mayor Garcetti. (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via AP, Pool)

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti listens as California Governor Gavin Newsom speaks in front of the hospital ship US Naval Ship Mercy that arrived into the Port of Los Angeles on Friday, March 27, 2020.

Associated Press

Lee: I mean, we’re seeing the actual numbers. I think in Mayor Garcetti’s speech last night, he was showing that the social distancing is making a very, very clear impact on the number of people who are getting into hospitals. It’s a significant impact. It’s working, and we need to stay home, and we need to continue to do so.

Silverstein: And just to go back to testing for a moment, are you seeing any people coming back for more testing? How many times should people be getting tested? Once we have enough tests, should we be getting tested regularly to make sure that if you’ve tested positive, then it goes away, or vice versa?

Penn: Yeah, the test is as valuable as the isolation that you protect yourself with, between the test and getting your result. Because you can take the test today, and if you open yourself up to infection tomorrow and get a result of negative the next day, you’re going to be misled. Ultimately, yes, this would be a process of test, retest, isolate, social distancing. And hang in there. Everybody in their own circumstance.

When I think about a young mother who may be alone with an infant, a seven-year-old, and a 16-year-old who just lost her job, we do know that that moving towards opening this economy is a real thing. We do really have to do it. It’s not sustainable to continue a quarantine culture, but that’s why on all levels of what we are trying to do, we want to help in our way to get us back to being able to do that as soon as possible.

Silverstein: And what percentage of the population do you think has to be able to have access to tests in order for us to reopen the economy?

Penn: Well, this is, I guess, outside my pay grade, but I do understand that for herd immunity, it’s 78%. But I think there are other ways, and some of the phasing notions. As long as we are able to deal with any rises of surge, in terms of PPE supply, et cetera.

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