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Tesla sees spike in COVID-19 ‘exposure,’ data leak shows over 130 cases and more ‘affected’

An internal data leak shows that Tesla is seeing a spike in COVID-19 “exposure,” primarily at its Fremont factory in California.

Tesla has had a controversial history with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The automaker first defied a shelter-in-place order that required shutting down its Fremont factory, which stayed open a week longer than it was supposed to, early in the pandemic, in March.

In the weeks that followed, CEO Elon Musk became outspoken about the pandemic, which he mostly downplayed as not being as dangerous as portrayed in the media. The CEO was also highly critical of the restrictions put in place by the state government and county officials.

He went as far as threatening to move Tesla out of California if the automaker wasn’t allowed to reopen its Fremont factory.

In May, Tesla ended up reopening the factory again by defying the local order a week before it was officially allowed to open the plant.

Now, two months later, the US is still seeing record levels of new COVID-19 cases, and Tesla is also experiencing an increasing number of cases in its workforce. Tesla’s workforce is largely in California, which has been particularly hard hit in recent weeks.

Electrek obtained internal data from Tesla showing that the automaker has had over 1,550 employees “affected” by COVID-19 cases (some data has been redacted to protect the source):

“Affected” doesn’t necessarily mean that the employees tested positive for the virus, but Tesla appears to classify “affected” workers who have been exposed to other workers who were confirmed to have the virus.

Based on Tesla’s own data, the majority of employees tracked for exposure have been not been tested, or it is unknown whether they have been tested:

So far, more than 130 Tesla workers have tested positive with more test results pending, and a dozen more contractors and temporary employees involved with Tesla’s operations have also tested positive.

The data seems to indicate that most “affected” employees have been identified as such for having “direct contact outside of work,” though most cases are still “unspecified.”

In another slide, Tesla’s data confirms that the number of “exposure” among employees at Fremont factory has been spiking in the last two weeks:

Tesla employs around 10,000 people at Fremont factory. It is the automaker’s facility with the biggest workforce.

If Tesla finds that an employee has been exposed, the company notifies them and asks that they self-quarantine.

The automaker wrote in an email to “affected” employees:

  • Since this is precautionary only, if you test negative, you can return to work 24 hours after being fever free (without the use of fever-reducing medication) and improved symptoms (if symptoms develop).
  • If you test positive, you will need to stay home for 10 days after the test date and at least three days after you have recovered. Recovery means that your fever is gone for 72 hours without the use of fever-reducing medications and your respiratory symptoms have improved. A doctor’s note is required to say you are fit to return to work.

Sources told Electrek that Tesla had some outbreaks within a few teams in Fremont where Tesla had to ask most workers among specific teams on the production line to self-quarantine after a few tested positive.

The automaker has put some measures in place to help prevent the spread, like hand-washing stations, temperature scanners, requiring masks, and social distancing.

However, some employees report to Electrek that not all measures are being adequately followed.

Tesla’s own guidelines say that they supply reusable maks because “disposable masks may not only lead to waste but they may not fit as well as other masks.” Yet several workers told Electrek that Tesla still provides them with disposable masks.

We reached out to Tesla’s PR department for comment before posting the story, but we haven’t received an answer. As far as we know, the company hasn’t responded to a press inquiry in over a year.

Electrek’s Take

There’s some good and bad news here.

While cases at Fremont factory have been spiking in the past two weeks, Tesla seems to be doing some decent contact tracing, and it’s using it to quarantine affected employees.

However, it looks like Tesla could also do better to protect its employees.

For example, the automaker operates production lines in tent-like sprung structures at Fremont factory, and with higher temperatures lately, the conditions have been difficult on the production line.

Tesla has set up air-conditioned containers to help employees cool down, but due to their size, they stay away from them in order to social distance.

An employee even told us that he saw Elon and his entourage tour a production line in June without masks on, which is against Tesla’s own guidelines.

While Tesla seems to be pushing common-sense measures to prevent the spread, they also seem to be willing to overlook things if it means that they can keep production going and ramp it up.

I think it starts at the top, and with Elon’s comments often dismissing the seriousness of the pandemic, I can see how this can trickle down in the organization.

Elon should publicly correct the course here, admit that some of the comments he made regarding the pandemic were wrong, and that he and Tesla are taking the situation extremely seriously.

It would send a better message to follow the guidelines amid hundreds of Tesla workers being put in quarantine. There’s no shame in admitting you were wrong about this. Virtually everyone has been wrong about the pandemic at one point or another. I can myself admit to being skeptical about the seriousness of the problem earlier this year.

What do you think? Let us know in the comment section below.

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