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Staff Photo by Elizabeth Fite / A knit mask made by a sock company and distributed by Gov. Bill Lee's administration is receiving criticism from Tennesseans.

If a breezy sock is all we need to protect ourselves and others from COVID-19, why should Tennesseans pay for a black one that appears to be ill-fitting with a TN in the corner? Just order some socks and some elastic from Amazon and move on.

It seems Tennessee's first round of 5 million face masks — ordered up by Gov. Bill Lee's Unified Command group from North Carolina's Renfro Corp. and made in Cleveland — have some people questioning whether the material is up to snuff. The weave is so porous, you can see through it.

The questions began this week when the first shipment of 400,000 free masks began reaching county health departments for distribution. The Hamilton County Health Department received 15,760 on Wednesday.

Tennessee House Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, tweeted: "A friend picked 1 up and said it looks like somebody cut a sock in half it's very porous ad I can see through it. It's like trying to keep chipmunks out of your garden with chicken wire." Johnson also tweeted: "To be clear, I never expected a "medical use" quality mask. I did expect one that used a tightly woven fabric ..."

The masks are based on the design of the Nightingale mask, recently created in Winston-Salem, N.C., by a team of researchers and medical experts at Wake Forest Baptist Health.

Nightingale. Get it? As in Florence Nightingale, the British social reformer known for pioneering modern nursing in the mid-1800s and among the first to advocate for hand washing.

To be clear, the packaging on the black Tennessee "one-size-fits-most" sock says "not intended for medical purposes."

So what purposes then? A fashion statement, maybe?

Certainly Tennesseans, and everyone else, should be wearing masks when they go out in public and are around other people.

Even our president, who has shunned masks as though they themselves were the plague, may now understand the importance of a mask to protect oneself and others. The president's valet has tested positive for COVID-19, and the president is raging that his staff didn't protect him well enough. Never mind that no one yet has been able to protect Donald Trump from his own vanity. But we digress.

Everyone should wear masks in public to protect themselves and others.

So — from that standpoint we applaud Gov. Lee's effort with the masks.

Dr. Bill Satterwhite, chief wellness officer at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, said the hospital team started working on the Nightingale design with Renfro to make more face masks due to the shortage of personal protective equipment and a push to outfit everyone in his city with their own mask as a way to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

But unlike the original Wake Forest-designed Nightingale, which retails online for $180 for a pack of 24 ($7.50 each), Tennessee's masks cost the state $1.65 each, according to spokesman Dean Flener. That's because while the design is the same, the material is different. These are made with terry polyester and treated with Silvadur, a non-toxic silver antimicrobial good for 25 industrial washes.

Renfro Corp. said the difference in material was in order to meet the needs and budget of the state.

Penny-wise and pound-foolish, perhaps? It's possible. State expenditures made to support the public health response to COVID-19 are eligible for reimbursement through the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund. Either way, it's our money, and savings are appreciated — but not at the expense of creating a false sense of COVID-19 confidence.

The cost-cutting worries Rep. Johnson, and well it should.

"I feel like we're cheating the folks who have the least resources," she said. "The governor is giving you a mask, you think that's going to be protective, and that's concerning to me that maybe these aren't the most protective masks. When you can see light through them, that's a problem, and that's before you've even stretched them out across your face."

No cloth face mask is intended for medical use. But since 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, one has to wonder about the porous nature of these particular masks. Especially after they get washed a time or two.

Another 600,000 masks will be delivered across the state this weekend, and then 1 million in weekly shipments thereafter until the order reaches 5 million.

Perhaps Tennessee should suspend the next shipments and opt for a better, tighter material blend. Don't throw good money after bad.

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Staff Photo by Elizabeth Fite / A knit mask made by a sock company and distributed by Gov. Bill Lee's administration is receiving criticism from Tennesseans.
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