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Outbreak at SpaceX yields 132 coronavirus cases; company says number dates to September

The interior of the SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne
The interior of SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, seen in 2018. More than 100 employees at the facility have tested positive for COVID-19.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

At least 132 staffers at the SpaceX rocket factory in Hawthorne have tested positive for coronavirus amid a large outbreak that coincides with a busy month of launches for the aerospace manufacturer.

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health released the data as part of a summary of COVID-19 cases throughout the county.

In a message sent to employees, SpaceX said there have been 132 cases reported at corporate headquarters since September, when “several employees who work in the same area contracted COVID outside of work at a non-work-related event.”

Outbreaks listed by the L.A. County health department include cases reported since the onset of a cluster of positive tests and may include individuals who have since recovered, according to information from the county. An outbreak concludes when no new cases have been reported for two weeks, county data indicate.

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Health officials from Los Angeles County did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

An estimated 5,972 employees were working at the Hawthorne site as of May, according to court documents.

SpaceX said in its memo that only one case of the coronavirus is suspected of occurring at work and that the 132 number includes employees “who may have been on vacation for several weeks, returned to work and received a COVID test at SpaceX that turned out positive.”

SpaceX said it “has worked diligently to ensure testing is available to all employees, and have encouraged employees to get tested at work.”

There has been at least one other outbreak at SpaceX’s Hawthorne headquarters, where the Elon Musk-led company’s main design, manufacturing and engineering is done, including work on its Falcon 9 rockets and Dragon capsules.

In March 2020, shortly after California Gov. Gavin Newsom enacted the nation’s first lockdown amid the nascent pandemic, an employee who traveled abroad and an onsite healthcare provider tested positive for the virus. At least 12 employees who were in close contact with those people were sent home to quarantine for two weeks.

At least a dozen SpaceX employees have been sent home to quarantine after there were two confirmed cases of COVID-19 at its Hawthorne facility.

Musk initially criticized reaction to the pandemic as “dumb” and overblown, and for a time, a Bay Area Tesla automotive plant remained open last year in defiance of statewide lockdown orders before bowing to the restrictions.

More than 400 workers at the plant tested positive for COVID-19 from May — when it reopened — through December, according to public health data released by a transparency website.

The company has had four launches this month, including two last weekend that occurred on opposite coasts within roughly 15 hours of each other.

Early Saturday, SpaceX launched another batch of its Starlink broadband satellites from Vandenberg Space Force Base near Lompoc, Calif. Hours later, the company launched a Turkish communications satellite from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

Tesla will temporarily end production at its Fremont assembly plant beginning March 23 to comply with Bay Area restrictions due to coronavirus.

SpaceX’s current outbreak is the largest of 37 at Los Angeles County workplaces, food and retail stores, and places of worship, all of which the public health department refers to as nonresidential settings, according to public data.

The second-largest such outbreak is at FedEx near Los Angeles International Airport, with 85 confirmed cases among staff members.

FedEx spokesperson Isabel Rollison said those cases were reported during the six-month period from June to November.

“The health and safety of our team members is our top priority,” she said, noting that the current number of cases is “very low.”

FedEx implements rigorous safety measures, including masking and social distancing mandates at all its facilities, Rollison said.

A separate outbreak at Northrop Grumman, an aerospace and defense company, included 33 cases at a Palmdale location.

An outbreak at a nonresidential setting is included on the public health department’s list if there is a cluster of respiratory illness in people associated with the setting, including at least three people who have tested positive for the coronavirus.


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