Tennessee Under Pressure After Spending $8.2 Million on Sock-Material Face Masks

The state of Tennessee granted an $8.2 million contract to sock manufacturer Renfro Corporation to make masks to distribute to residents during the coronavirus pandemic. However, the state and the company is now on the defensive as the sock-material masks are thin and see-through. Some lawmakers fear the masks will not be enough to slow the spread of the virus.

Tennessee ordered 5 million masks from the North Carolina-based company, which has a manufacturing and distribution facility in Cleveland, Tennessee, and distribution of the first round began last week. They were made available at county health departments, and have "TN" stitched into them. According to the Times Free Press, the masks are based on the Nightingale mask design, which was created by medical experts at Wake Forest Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Photos of the masks began to surface on social media, and there has been some concern that they might not be effective. "Folks are picking up Gov Lee’s masks from the health dept," State Rep. Gloria Johnson person wrote on Twitter, along with photos of the mask. "Package says not for medical use. A friend picked 1 up and said it looks like somebody cut a sock in half it’s very porous and I can see through it. It’s like trying to keep chipmunks out of your garden with chicken wire."

Johnson later told the Times Free Press she feels like the state is "cheating" residents, especially those who do not have the resources to buy masks themselves. Renfro defended the masks, which cost the state $1.65 each. The company pointed out that the masks are made of a different material than the real Nightingale masks because of the state's budget and the short timeframe.

"The state of Tennessee requested 5 million masks with a short timeframe, and Renfro produced a mask to meet this need," Kelly DeMeester, the vice president of innovation and safety for Renfro, said. "As the largest sock company in North America, we're proud of our team's ability to manufacture masks that will help residents of Tennessee."

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Dean Flener, spokesman for Gov. Bill Lee's coronavirus team, told The Tennessean all 5 million masks will still be made by Renfro. The state did not seek bids from other companies and worked wit Renfro under an "emergency purchasing authority." The state also did not want to disrupt "the supply chain of PPE to front-line medical providers and first responders."

"Neither this mask, nor any cloth face mask, is intended for medical use," Flenor explained. "Cloth face coverings are meant 'to slow the spread of the virus,' by interfering with the release of saliva droplets that could contain viral material. Therefore cloth face coverings are to help prevent possibly 'transmitting the virus to others,' as the CDC indicates in its recommendations on cloth coverings." The CDC's guidance does note that household items of "common materials" can be used to create acceptable face coverings.