Sean Penn's nonprofit to expand free virus testing sites: "This is right now an active shooter scenario"

Sean Penn joins the fight against COVID-19
Sean Penn joins the fight against COVID-19 04:43

The nonprofit founded by actor and activist Sean Penn is helping manage free drive-thru coronavirus testing sites in California. CORE, which Penn created after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, told "CBS This Morning" that it will open new testing sites in New Orleans, Atlanta and Detroit.

"This is right now an active shooter scenario, the virus is. And its principal focus is on people of color, the elderly, the indigenous," Penn told CBS News correspondent Jamie Yuccas. "But it doesn't really care who else is in the way."

At 10 sites around California, including Los Angeles, Penn and his CORE team are distributing free test kits to free up the city's first responders for emergency services.

"All of these volunteers are occupying positions that used to be L.A. firefighters on this site," Pen said. "The L.A. firefighters have skill sets very specific … and we all need them out there on the street. We need the paramedic core. God forbid, there's a brush fire."

Penn didn't just mobilize his team, he often works alongside them. And each night, he gets on a Zoom call with site team leaders to ensure their response is efficient and effective.

"These are people new in my life, who took an idea we had and now lead it," he said. "I spend most of the time just thinking, 'Well, if this is the next generation, we might be okay.'"

Now, he plans to roll out similar testing sites in other states. 

"Our biggest ambition is to be the, or one of the, models that's replicable," Penn said. "This is not like building a business where you have ambitions of being number one. The idea is to, as quickly as possible, be a loud, visible example of what others can do."

The new CORE test sites will go in areas Penn believes have been underserved, such as New Orleans and Detroit. Penn sees this as a vital piece of the puzzle to reopening states for business.

"I do get that people are struggling in ways that I can't even imagine," he said. "And I think we need a really accurate picture of how much testing is happening nationally."

The Oscar-winning actor rewrote his legacy when a massive earthquake leveled Haiti in 2010. Penn left Hollywood to help in the recovery efforts and created CORE.

When devastating hurricanes hit in Puerto Rico, North Carolina and Florida, the emergency response organization was on the scene. But this is the group's first pandemic.

Asked if he worries about his health, Penn said he is "pretty careful."

"God forbid, ... that I make a mistake, get sick. I'm 60 years old. That wouldn't be a good idea," he said. "And I don't want to be a drain on the medical system. ... I worry more about the inactivity in testing."

To make sure he's healthy while working, Penn has had repeated tests for COVID-19. All have been negative.  

"There is a will to take risks, but in this case, the risk of being sick is risking other people. You become the gun," he said. 

That's why he now steps in as team leader, another role for an actor who doesn't like titles.

"People use the word humanitarian," he said. "I have great people on my staff that are humanitarians, but I really love feeling like the plumber who's going to figure out how to fix the sink."

He sees his role as the plumber, he said.

To learn more about helping COVID-19 relief efforts, visit COREresponse.org/covid19.