OAK RIDGE, Tenn. — In a worst-case scenario, the Tennessee Department of Health instructed healthcare providers to use diapers instead of facemasks, swim goggles instead of eye protection and plastic bags in lieu of gloves to protect themselves against COVID-19. 

The directive came in a webinar for healthcare professionals. 

"Obviously these are not FDA approved strategies, but sometimes necessity is the mother of invention," Dr. Michelle Fiscus said on the video. "You have to do what you have to do to make sure you’re as protected as you can be."

A slide titled "Conserving PPE" included a number of alternatives to typical personal protective equipment. In the voiceover instructions on the face mask section, Fiscus can be heard saying "I have seen reports in other countries of people using diapers. They have handy Velcro sidetabs that can sometimes be stretched along the head."

order to conserve PPE
Tennessee Department of Health

"It’s almost unbelievable to think of the makeshift protective equipment that is being used," University of Tennessee professor Carole Meyers said. 

"A nurse or a physician should not be put in a position where they don’t have adequate personal protective equipment and they go and care for patients with the best intentions and they end up dying because they weren’t protected."

A Department of Health spokesperson told 10News the webinar was intended to familiarize providers with ways to protect themselves during extreme situations where typical protective equipment is not available. 

"These scenarios were mentioned on a TDH conference call for situational awareness in the practice community. These extreme measures are being reported when there is an absence of any available PPE," the department spokesperson said.

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In East Tennessee, hospitals said they had begun to conserve surgical masks and other protective gear in anticipation of shortages. 

Nurses at Methodist Memorial Hospital in Oak Ridge told 10News they had been told not to wear masks--even homemade ones--unless they were dealing with suspected COVID-19 patients. 

A spokesperson for the Covenant Health-operated hospital said it follows CDC guidelines.

"We have worked to educate staff that wearing masks throughout the day is not necessary unless they are in contact with a suspected COVID-19 patient or during normal patient care that would require use of a mask. We have also provided direction and caution regarding the use of personal or homemade masks in a clinical setting in our daily communication with staff," the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson said no direct caregiver at the hospital had been fired or threatened with termination for not following the policy. 

Knox County Health Department's Director of Communicable and Environmental Disease and Emergency Preparedness Charity Menefee said hospitals across the area had begun to conserve protective gear. 

She said hand-sewn masks are okay for the public to wear, but that the health department was "not recommending" them for healthcare providers. 

In Tennessee, some National Guard armories have been accepting donated masks. In Knoxville, the city organized a supply drive beginning Friday.