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NASHVILLE — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee announced Tuesday that the first 300,000 cloth masks from Renfro Corp., a Mount Airy, N.C. global designer and distributor with a Cleveland-based manufacturing and distribution facility, will be delivered to county and municipal health departments this week.

The strategic partnership with the company is one of two struck by Lee's Unified Command Group as the state battles the coronavirus and Lee's administration continues reopening segments of Tennessee's economy.

The Unified Command Group has ordered five million of the Renfro masks for Tennesseans to wear as they go about their business while trying to tamp down on the potentially deadly virus' spread.

Unified Command is also partnering with Battelle, the Ohio-based global research and development company, to provide a system that can remove remove biological contaminates, including the virus that causes COVID-19, from used N95 respirator masks. This system will be used to provide N95 masks to Tennessee health care workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lee said in a news release that "we've used private sector innovation, strategic partnerships, and state procurement efforts to make personal protective equipment available to front-line medical providers and first responders."

As the state restarts Tennessee's economy, Lee said "it's very important we help Tennesseans feel safe as they go back to work or out to shop, and that our health care providers have sufficient personal protective equipment for their workers. We're grateful to Renfro for their partnership in helping us keep Tennesseans safe."

Unified Command is supplying the first 300,000 Renfro masks, based on population, to Tennessee's county and municipal health departments this week. Each health department will receive at least 1,000 masks and will serve as a convenient pick up location for county residents who need masks, according to administration officials.

"Tennesseans can now come to their local health department on any weekday to get a free cloth face mask," Unified Command Director Stuart McWhorter said. "And while residents are at the health department, we would encourage them to get a free COVID-19 test, regardless of their symptoms, if they haven't already done so."

The mask distribution at county health departments is part of what Unified Command is calling its "first wave" in a larger mask distribution effort in Tennessee with Renfro. Details on that will be released later.

Stan Jewell, Renfro's President and CEO, said that "for a century, Renfro has focused on manufacturing millions of pairs of socks every week at our facilities in Alabama and Tennessee. Then in March, it became apparent that our design and manufacturing expertise could be used to provide millions of face masks to communities to help reduce the spread of COVID19."

Jewell said the company has "a long, distinguished history in Tennessee, and we are proud to partner with the State to equip all Tennesseans with a protective mask as part of the solution to combat COVID-19."

Battelle, meanwhile, will locate one of 60 nationally-deployed decontamination systems in Jackson as part of an effort to bring down costs and boost availability of the N95 masks health care providers rely on in treating coronavirus patients.

The Battelle system uses hydrogen peroxide vapor in a 2.5-hour process that will remove biological contaminates from used N95 respirator masks.

"The Battelle service should relieve some of the demand pressure on N95 masks for Tennessee's health care providers," McWhorter said. "Battelle's associated costs for system staffing and training is provided through a number of federal grant sources, making the N95 mask decontamination service free to Tennessee health care providers."

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.

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