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Sock maker gets $8 million, no-bid contract to make face masks

Sock maker gets $8 million no-bid contract to make face masks
Posted at 5:44 PM, May 08, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-09 18:18:57-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — More than $8 million of COVID-19 money from the federal government put into the pockets of a company that makes socks -- that's who Gov. Bill Lee's team tapped for a no-bid contract to deliver five million face masks to Tennesseans.

The state paid $1.65 for each one.

So what did we get?

That's one of the questions being asked by NewsChannel 5 Investigates as we continue to follow the money related to the coronavirus crisis.

"Free reusable, washable cloth masks are available at every state health department so Tennesseans can get access to those," Lee said during a COVID-19 briefing on Thursday.

It was part of the governor's continuing strategy to contain the spread of the virus.

On Wednesday, Tennesseans were lining up at health departments across the state - and almost immediately there were criticisms about the quality.

What appeared to be a criticism came Thursday night in a tweet from Meharry Medical College president Dr. James E.K. Hildreth, a respected infectious disease expert.

"Masks made from socks ... will not be effective in protecting against viruses," Hildreth tweeted.

By morning, during Nashville Mayor John Cooper's briefing, the doctor appeared to be backtracking.

"Depending on what the mask is designed to do, a sock mask may be appropriate - for example, if you are going to try to prevent the exchange of saliva and not aerosols," Hildreth told reporters.

"So depending on what the mask is made to do or meant to do, different materials are appropriate."

So what's the controversy all about?

If you take a cotton face mask and hold it up to the light, you cannot see anything through the material.

But take one purchased by the governor's team, and you can see right through it.

In a non-scientific experiment, NewsChannel 5 Investigates put a tablespoon of flour inside each of the masks and shook them vigorously.

There was not any leakage from either.

"These are not medical grade masks, and they are not intended to be used for medical purposes," Gov. Lee told reporters.

As the week ended, the governor showed up at Second Harvest Food Bank wearing one of the masks himself.

Lee's COVID-19 Unified Command issued a statement saying that "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 statement argued that the masks are made with a terry polyester material that "allows for easier breathing by the user, which is also CDC recommendation." The masks are "treated with Silvadur, a non-toxic silver antimicrobial good for 25 industrial washes."

Lee defended the decision to give the no-bid contract to the North Carolina-based Renfro Corp., which has a factory in Cleveland, Tennessee.

"We were operating under an emergency procurement process which means we needed to find someone who was local and could produce them quickly because we need to get them out quickly," he added.

Lee's COVID-19 Unified Command said that the Renfro face coverings are being produced at a combination of the company’s facilities, including some in Cleveland and others at the company’s Fort Payne, Ala. facility.

"Renfro had already made some in North Carolina, which allowed Renfro to meet Tennessee’s order of five million face coverings and quickly send us the first shipment of 300,000 for county health departments," the statement said.

So exactly how was this company picked?

NewsChannel 5 Investigates does not have those answers yet.

But, because it involves millions of dollars of your money, those are questions we'll keep asking.