Tennessee stops handing out chemical-treated masks
A clinician administers a COVID-19 test at the Avondale Youth and Family Development Center on Wednesday, May 20, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn. Cempa Community Care was offering free walk-up and drive-thru testing for COVID-19. (C.B. Schmelter/Chattanooga Times Free Press via AP)

MEMPHIS (AP) — The state of Tennessee has stopped distributing face masks provided for use by counties responding to the new coronavirus after they were found to be treated with a chemical.

Tennessee’s emergency management agency told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the state has paused further distribution of the masks to county health departments while more information is gathered on the chemical, known as Silvadur.

The move came after the health departments in Shelby, Knox and Hamilton counties stopped distribution of the masks. They have been treated with Silvadur, an anti-microbial agent applied to fabrics to reduce growth of bacteria that cause odor, the Shelby County Health Department said in a news release Monday.

Trace amounts of Silvadur are applied to the fabric and the chemical diminishes each time the mask is washed, health officials said.

North Carolina-based Renfro Corp., a sock manufacturer, secured an $8.2 million, no-bid contract for more than 5 million masks for distribution for free in Tennessee. The masks had been touted by Gov. Bill Lee.

The state has already distributed more than 3.2 million masks, TEMA spokesman Dean Flener said.

TEMA said in a fact sheet that the Renfro face masks are made in accordance with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s emergency authorization for nonsurgical masks.

In a statement Tuesday, Renfro said the masks are “harmless to human health and are serving the specific purpose outlined by U.S. and State of Tennessee health officials.”

State Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey said Tuesday that the state has ordered an independent assessment of the mask.

“We have received some preliminary information from the manufacturer both of the mask and of the chemical,” Piercey said. “All indications are that it is safe and it is commonly used in fabrics. But until we get that independent assessment, we want people to use them at their discretion.”

Lee also announced Tuesday that his administration will use $200 million in federal coronavirus relief money to aid small businesses harmed by the pandemic. About 28,000 Tennessee businesses are expected to qualify.

Rather than using an application process, the state is going to use its data to push payments out to businesses, said Revenue Commissioner David Gerregano. The payments will likely range from $2,500 to about $30,000, Gerregano said.

Tennessee has reported more than 24,300 cases of COVID-19 and at least 381 deaths.

Also in Shelby County, which includes Memphis, health officials said about 1,500 prison inmates and more than 500 staff will be tested for COVID-19 at the county’s correctional facility starting Tuesday.

Shelby County health officials also reported Tuesday an increase of 190 cases of COVID-19 over the day before. That’s the highest day-to-day jump since April 24, about two weeks before businesses such as restaurants, gyms and retail stores were allowed to again welcome customers under updated stay-at-home orders.

Dr. Bruce Randolph, the county’s health officer, reminded residents to wear protective face masks and observe social distancing rules when they enter businesses.

“Our numbers are increasing. We’re alarmed about that,” Randolph said during an online news conference.

Randolph said the cases must level off or begin decreasing before more businesses can reopen or increase customer capacities.

Shelby County has reported more than 5,300 cases of COVID-19 and at least 113 deaths.

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