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Before the pandemic, I had been in practice as an ear, nose and throat doctor in Manhattan for nearly 17 years. Last spring, I was seeing about 125 patients a week, COVID-19 patients along with everyone else. March 17, 2020, was my last full day in the office — I had no idea it would be my last. Like so many in New York, in the world, “the last day” would become permanent. I shifted to telemedicine until the illnesses waned and the calls stopped. The majority of my patients, many of whom worked on Broadway, fled the city. With little income and overhead costs savaging my savings, I had to let my staff go in April. I volunteered to work at three NYC hospitals, but my phone didn’t ring. Weeks turned to months. I closed my practice in June.
I had suddenly become unnecessary. My sense of self largely emerged from my work, and I was a workaholic. Working was what I did for fun, I told myself. I barely took lunch, let alone vacations. Being forced to shut down at the peak of a pandemic was like being in the middle of a prize fight, only for my opponent to suddenly quit the fight and walk away. I was left swinging in midair with nothing to hit. I found myself spending days at the beach, pondering my existence. How could I lose everything I’d worked so hard for? Did it make sense to keep chasing after “success” when the world was at a standstill? Who was I without my practice? Did I matter anymore? Did it matter if I mattered? I became overwhelmed with self-interrogation, and I surrendered to the moment, to the not-knowing, to the margarita.
In late July, one of my former patients reached out. His wife, a TV and film producer, needed someone called a COVID compliance officer (CCO). She sent me the job description, and I saw, very quickly, that hiring me would be a bad idea. Although I was brimming with COVID facts, I had no background in safety or compliance. I also had never even been on the set of a TV production. This was a corporate job that came with enormous responsibility: the power to shut down production. I would have to be part of a well-oiled machine, answer to bosses and lawyers. I chose private practice precisely because I didn’t like being told what to do. I was the opposite of compliant. I politely declined, but she threw my name in the hat anyhow.
I was relieved when the studio didn’t approve me. Apparently, they wanted someone who was “medical” but also good at following orders — the opposite of a doctor. So I went back to my margarita, my surf, myself.
But they quickly changed their minds. “We need to fill the position right away,” the hurried TV executive said the next day on the phone. “You start Monday.” I accepted the offer in my delirium, perversely impressed with myself despite knowing I was in over my head.
Over the weekend, I panicked over hundreds of pages of state, union, production and CDC guidelines. Sure, I knew doctoring, but there was a limit to how much new stuff my brain could absorb in a such a short period of time. As my anxiety mounted, I lied to myself that I had nothing to lose. They couldn’t really expect me to just show up and be in charge. That would be crazy, right?
The production I was hired onto (unnamed here at its legal department’s insistence) was the biggest in New York at the time, with over 300 crewmembers on multiple sets and locations throughout the city. It was also only the third to restart amid the pandemic. Because production was so astronomically costly, the studio was motivated to get things torn down, built and shot as quickly as possible. Yet after months of negotiations, the return-to-work agreement between unions and production companies had yet to be signed. The show would have to work off a waiver, with no idea how and if the theoretical notions of working safely in a pandemic would play out in real life. I had to lead hundreds of people who had no idea who I was, in an industry I knew nothing about, into the vast unknown of a pandemic. It was a new frontier, and I was no Jean-Luc Picard. But I have to admit, when I was handed a bullhorn to address a group of 150 masked crewmembers, I felt blind with power.
As I quickly learned, television and medicine are very different, even though I sometimes felt like I was back in internship, suffering the constant anxiety of being expected to know what I was doing before I learned how to do the thing. In production, things happened instantly. Boundaries were bulldozed. Impossibilities were made possible, and everyone worked as a unit with an almost endless budget. In medicine, everything is slowed down. Technology is shunned, there are mountains of paperwork, and rules have to be meticulously followed for fear of violating HIPAA. The union of these two industries was full of bumps and roadblocks, and I was the shaky marriage counselor.
First, I had to learn all the rules — layers and layers of confusing and sometimes contradicting rules. New York state’s quarantine, for example, changed on an almost daily basis — from zero to 14 to seven days. The CDC kept disagreeing with the WHO about what an actual exposure meant. Each union had workday, food and paid leave rules. There were building codes, ventilation requirements and building capacity limits. And, to make it even more interesting, each studio and production had its own interpretation of the rules.
Next, I had to learn the role of every crewmember and their hierarchy. Each had a rigid, well-defined role and reported to a department head. Each department fit into the production like a puzzle. Certain labels were easy to understand, like how “key,” “lead” or “best” placed in front of a job meant the crewmember was higher up the totem pole. But when the job title was “man” or “boy,” it wasn’t much help. What in the hell was a gaffer?
I wasn’t just learning everyone’s titles, I was invading their social network: a complete unknown from a brand-new department, walking around set, dismantling their decades-long system. I felt like a sixth toe, budding off the foot of a fully grown Olympic athlete — tiny but potent, and throwing everything out of balance.
I also had to learn a new language. A “strike” meant breaking down a set, not signs and picket lines. “Background,” a rather reductive term if you ask me, is how they refer to actors who are extras. But the extras on the list sent by casting are called “skins.” I learned that a honey wagon is named not for being a comfortable trailer, but for the amber-colored waste that drains from its attached bathroom. Food came in endless supply, either hot meals from catering, or handed out from a witchy truck they called Crafty. A Dood wasn’t just what I called members of my COVID team. It was also a chart that explained when certain castmembers were needed on set. And a trailer called a “three-banger” turned out to be way more innocent than I initially thought.
When it came to testing and PPE, I was in my element, or so I thought. In August, it was still hard for regular people to get tested. I myself had never been tested, even after being coughed on by every COVID-positive person on Broadway. (I had diagnosed my own infection by association.) So the idea of weekly testing seemed super vigilant to me. The same was true of PPE. While front-line health-care workers were wearing garbage bags to work and regular people were still hoarding sanitizer and toilet paper, crewmembers were encouraged to blow through several KN95 masks a day. The excessiveness also required cleaning teams constantly wiping down surfaces with FDA-approved, toxic disinfectants, and PAs pumping out a proverbial wall tap of hand sanitizer that shot across the room and smelled like cheap vodka.
In terms of testing, the producers followed my lead, thankfully, agreeing to do more PCR tests than the less-accurate rapid tests. According to the return-to-work protocols, anyone who had to work without a mask (actors) or was around someone who wasn’t wearing a mask (the director, hair and makeup, etc.) had to be tested at least three times a week with a combination of lab-based PCR molecular tests and rapids. It was already clear to me that rapid, saliva, and any test that didn’t feel like a personal assault were rife with poor sensitivity and false positives. Those easy tests were meant for diagnosing symptomatic patients, not screening the same group of people over and over again. Enticed by getting results on the spot, some productions went down the rabbit hole of using rapids, only to find themselves shut down for clusters of false positives. Or worse, forcing their poor COVID teams (none of whom were doctors) to triage positive cases in real time during the shoot. None of that happened with us, in large part because the overnight PCR tests are much less likely to show false positives than the rapids.
While most of these rules stopped the spread of COVID, others just fed into “COVID theater,” which looked great but also created a false sense of security. Face shields were the best example. Cameramen donning these beauties looked super hygienic — until their aerosols condensed into liquid they had to wipe off with bare hands. Plastic dividers in catering spaces were another illusion of safety, defying even magical thinking, being that the virus is airborne. Some rules were followed only when convenient, like the 6-feet-of-perpetual-distance rule. When a higher-up needed to have an up-close and personal discussion with the lead actor, that rule went out the window.
Thankfully, once the protocols were put in place, my importance in the whole scheme diminished. I went from being the most crucial person on set to a useless appendage. It was as much a blow to my ego as it was a relief. I spent endless days walking around, telling people to put their masks on, and discussing COVID conspiracy theories with Teamsters. My sleep-deprived brain, disrupted by 4 a.m. call times and anxiety over test results, wandered further into the murky waters of identity and purpose. I had to remind myself, while stress-eating my fourth bacon and egg sandwich of the week, that even though my world at that moment was very confusing, I was still a doctor. This was just a television show. And I was playing the role of COVID Compliance Officer.
In the end, we made it through the production without having to stop. I’d like to say it was because I am capable of miracles, but it was really because my producers listened to me where it mattered the most and ignored me when my recommendations made them nervous. It didn’t hurt that positive cases were at an all-time low in New York (we had only three positives, none of whom had to be contact traced because they were pre-employment tests) or that we had only three weeks of shooting. What mattered was that we were the first show in NYC to finish, and we didn’t have to shut down. Oh, and no one got COVID on set.
As for me, I was ready to go back to the beach, maybe move to California and write. But between the wildfires and surging COVID rates, I found myself stuck in New York. Other productions kept calling. And here I am, exactly one year later, working on my fourth television production, walking toward a three-banger and wondering what comes next.
This story first appeared in the April 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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Red Sea Film Festival
Red Sea Film Festival