The omicron variant has apparently made some inroads at SpaceX's Southern California headquarters, as it has in much of the rest of the country.
SpaceX has reported 132 recent positive COVID-19 tests at its rocket factory near Los Angeles, according to a report published on Monday (Dec. 20) by the LA County Department of Public Health (LACDPH). That's more than one-quarter of the total number of recent reported workplace COVID positives in the county, which stands at 496.
The LACDPH classifies any cluster of three or more laboratory-confirmed positive tests at a facility within a two-week span as an "active outbreak." The term implies that COVID is spreading readily at a locale, but that's not really what's been happening at SpaceX's HQ in Hawthorne, near Los Angeles International Airport, company representatives said.
The coronavirus pandemic: Full space industry coverage
"In September, several employees who work in the same area contracted COVID outside of work at a non-work-related event. Because SpaceX has worked diligently to ensure testing is available to all employees, and have encouraged employees to get tested at work, these employees received COVID tests in Hawthorne, which triggered SpaceX to report these positive cases to LACDPH," SpaceX wrote Monday evening (Dec. 20) in an email to Hawthorne employees, which the company shared with Space.com.
"Of the 132 reported 'outbreak' cases, only one case was suspected to have occurred at work," the email continues. "132 is also the aggregate number of cases reported since the September case described above, and that 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. Again, it does not mean 132 employees in Hawthorne have COVID today or contracted it in the workplace."
The positive cases represent a tiny sliver of the rocket factory's workforce; SpaceX's Hawthorne facility employs nearly 6,000 people, according to NPR.
SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has been in the coronavirus headlines before. In the early days of the pandemic, for example, he downplayed COVID's seriousness, at one point speculating that the US would see "close to zero new cases" by the end of April 2020.
And one of his other companies, the electric-car maker Tesla, recorded about 450 positive COVID-19 tests at its Fremont, California, production plant from May 2020 to December 2020, The Washington Post reported earlier this year. Alameda County forced Tesla to close the Fremont plant, which employs about 10,000 people, in late March 2020. But the facility didn't stay shuttered for long.
"Tesla is restarting production today against Alameda County rules. I will be on the line with everyone else. If anyone is arrested, I ask that it only be me," Musk said via Twitter on May 11, 2020.
Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or on Facebook.