Mayo Clinic MRI lab technologist Kathryn Scharnweber has traded her blue medical scrubs this month for a bandanna and jeans to help make 300,000 emergency face shields at Pepin Manufacturing for the health system.

As nonessential medical services stopped, 35 Mayo nurses, lab techs and athletic trainers volunteered to be transferred to the Lake City manufacturing plant.

"We decreased patients volume [at Mayo] because of COVID-19 so we didn't have anything to do really," said Scharnweber, a 16-year Mayo employee. "And they needed help at Pepin Manufacturing, so it worked out great."

Pepin — a family-owned operation with more than $5 million in revenue — normally makes wound seals, electrodes, defibrillator parts and 800 other medical products for customers under contract.

Four weeks ago, Mayo operations vice chairman Bruce Mairose called asking for help, said Jon Solberg, Pepin's business development manager.

"We never made a face shield," Solberg said. "But we wanted to help out."

On a Monday, the company's engineers and Solberg figured out a prototype. Mairose took the shield back to Mayo for nurses to critique. A day later, Mayo placed the first of three orders for 100,000 face shields.

Mairose and his team also arranged for the idled Mayo staffers to redeploy at Pepin since the health system needed the shields in five weeks.

Many manufacturing plants are shifting to making medical equipment, but the arrangement with Mayo for staffing could be unique in Minnesota.

Pepin quickly sourced materials from suppliers in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and New Hampshire.

The 27-year-old company, which had never worked with Mayo before, then created 10 new work cells and set up two production shifts — each staffed by eight redeployed Mayo staffers and three Pepin workers. The workers were taught to properly distance to keep everyone safe from COVID-19.

Travis Sell, a warehouse associate, volunteered to help get the new project going right next to the company's other medical contract business. He has been working 12-hour shifts six days a week to get the Mayo project done while also overseeing his other product shipments.

"When I heard about the project with Mayo, I jumped right in," Sell said. "I try to make it fun. It's so repetitive that it can burn you out pretty quick. So I get the music going and spread the joy, I guess."

The plant is now averaging 5,000 face shields a day and is halfway through filling the Mayo contract, Solberg said.

The manufacturer also received orders from other regional hospital systems and has hired five more workers of its own.

Scharnweber and a few others have taken to wearing their bandannas like Rosie the Riveter.

"But we named ourselves 'Freda The Face Shield Makers,' " Scharnweber said.

The Pepin team inserts little notes of cheer in each box of shields for their co-workers at Mayo sites across the country, Solberg said.

"We're so impressed with how Pepin Manufacturing has stepped up to fill this need for us, and equally impressed by our employees who are doing their part to ensure these face shields reach their colleagues across the Mayo Clinic Enterprise," said Christopher Gulden, operations administrator for Mayo's southeast Minnesota Hospital and Emergency Medicine Service line.

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725