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Wayne State doctor oversees COVID-19 safety protocols on Soderbergh movie filming in Detroit from the Detroit Free Press

October 16, 2020

Even in the best of times, movie sets are usually closed to outsiders for reasons of security and secrecy. In simple terms, if you’re making “Jaws,” you don’t want strangers walking around looking for the shark.

But keeping things off-limits to all but cast and crew is doubly important for director Steven Soderbergh’s latest film, which is shooting now in Detroit under strict safety protocols designed specifically for the COVID-19 pandemic.

“No Sudden Move” is a crime drama set in the Motor City of the 1950s and featuring Don Cheadle, Jon Hamm, Kieran Culkin, Benicio del Toro and other well-known actors who are part of Hollywood’s return to work after months of quarantining.

One of the few Detroiters who is seeing the action up close is Dr. Phillip Levy, who visits the set regularly in his role as the movie’s health safety supervisor.

After several weeks on the job, Levy can vouch for the fact that the “No Sudden Move” team is taking the health precautions seriously, from the stars to the grips.

”Everyone is approaching this as a true professional,” Levy says,

A professor of Wayne State University’s School of Medicine and assistant vice president for research, Levy is recognized nationally for his work in cardiovascular research.

In January, he became chief innovation officer of Wayne Health (rebranded in September from its previous name of Wayne State University  Physicians Group). The 300-doctor group practice with multiple specialties has been a leading force for COVID-19 testing in Detroit since March.

So far, more than 20,000 people at more than 160 different events throughout metro Detroit.

Under Levy’s tenure, Wayne Health has been focusing on new outreach strategies to address the disparities in health care exposed by COVID-19 — including the disproportionate number of deaths in the African-American community.

In particular, through a collaboration between Wayne State and Wayne Health, Levy has been leading efforts to use mobile testing units that fit inside transit vans to reach underserved neighborhoods through the region.

The mobile testing program, done in partnership with Ford Motor Co., is part of the state’s successful effort to reduce health-care disparities, as evidence by recent data on COVID-19 cases in Michigan.

According to Levy, mobile testing units offer a whole new way to help people who could benefit not just from COVID-19 testing but also from screenings for high blood pressure, HIV and diabetes and an overall assessment of health and social service needs.

“We don’t need more papers to say it’s hard to be impoverished and a minority in this country. We know the health outcomes are worse. We need solutions,” he says.

The mobile testing approach also makes sense for film productions, which move from location to location on tight schedules.

“No Sudden Move”, originally titled “Kill Shot,” was about ready to begin filming in Detroit in mid-March when the pandemic’s arrival essentially shut down everything.

Soderbergh was committed to working in the Motor City, the site of his previous hit “Out of Sight,” the 1998 adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel that starred George Clooney, Jennifer Lopez and Cheadle. In a May online interview, he vowed to return to Detroit as soon as possible.

During the shutdown, Soderbergh was chosen to head a Directors Guild of America task force on resuming filming safely. He already had a good working knowledge of a pandemic’s dangers through his experience making “Contagion,” the 2011 drama praised for its terrifyingly realistic portrayal of a lethal airborne virus outbreak.

Soderbergh consulted on the DGA assignment with experts like Larry Brilliant, who previously had advised him on “Contagion” and is an esteemed epidemiologist involved with helping eradicate smallpox in the 1970s.

Brilliant also happens to be a native Detroiter who graduated from the Wayne State University School of Medicine. Thus, in September, when filming was about to start on “No Sudden Move,”  Soderbergh reached out to Wayne State’s President M. Roy Wilson and wound up connecting by phone with Levy, who had been immersed for months in COVID-19 testing efforts for the college and Wayne Health.

Levy had what he calls “a nice conversation” with Soderbergh and Brilliant, who was part of the call, too. “They were like: ‘We love you guys. We want you to head up our COVID program, our testing program.’”

In late July, Soderbergh expressed his confidence to the New York Times in the COVID-19 safety guidelines initially drafted by the DGA and later aided and adopted by Hollywood’s major unions. He estimated that the cost of the protocols could take up to 15% or 20% of future budgets.

“If you follow these protocols we’re about to finish up with, I feel pretty confident saying that you’re not going to get sick at work. If you got sick on one of our projects, it was during the 12 to 14 hours when I didn’t have you and I couldn’t control your behavior. That’s going to be the trick, is all of this downtime when you don’t know what people are up to,” said Soderbergh.

In September, the studios and unions finally reached a COVID-19 return to work agreement that, among its many rules, relies on a zone system to determine the rate of testing. The strictest area, Zone A, is for actors, who must remove their masks during actual filming, and those crew members who need to work near them. Zone A essentially requires COVID-19 testing every other day.

Explains Levy, “The goal is not to test somebody to clear them to act that day. The goal is constant surveillance, to make sure we pick up on the virus detection as soon as possible.”

So far, there has been only one confirmed positive COVID-19 test, from an off-set production location, out of more than 1,000 tests conducted.

In his role with the movie, Levy does everything from overseeing testing to answering the cast and crew’s safety questions.

The safety protocols for “No Sudden Moves” began before anyone from the movie arrived in Detroit. “What we did is anybody who flew in to town had to do a 72-hour quarantine (and) had to test negative before they left, and then they had to quarantine for 72 hours on arrival,” says Levy.

Medical staffers from Wayne Health handle the COVID-19 testing for the movie. Using mobile testing units, they can go where the production needs testing on any given day, whether it’s a set or a nearby base camp or parking area.

When a mobile unit recently went to a crew parking area at a Detroit strip mall, passers-by starting asking questions.

“A lot of the community has been coming up and saying, ‘Can we get tested, too?” says Levy, who is working with the production on ways to provide community testing near such filming sites.

As a result of those conversations, Levy and his team were able to do community testing at the parking area on Monday that enabled them to test 43 people.

“There’s a lot of really nice pay-it-forward type of activities that are coming out of this.”

One of them is coming straight from Soderbergh. The director has donated money for the purchase of two new mobile health units, which should be ready for use by early November. They will join three new units that already have been purchased from Ford under a contract with the state of Michigan.

Soderbergh’s message has always been the same, according to Levy. “We want to give back to the community,” he says, sharing the thoughts of the director.

And what does Soderbergh himself say? He wasn’t available for interviews and neither were the producers. They’re probably on the closed set of “No Sudden Move” right now, keeping the media — and COVID-19 — as far away as possible.

Read “Wayne State doctor oversees COVID-19 safety protocols on Soderbergh movie filming in Detroit” from the Detroit Free Press.

Learn more about Wayne Health’s Mobile Test Unit.

Learn more about Phillip Levy, M.D., MPH, FACEP, FAHA, FACC.

Wayne State doctor oversees COVID-19 safety protocols on Soderbergh movie filming in Detroit from the Detroit Free Press

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