At press conferences she publishes online, she begs people to listen to the facts and understand what could happen to them. But Topeka, which is home to some 125,000 people, is not experiencing the worst of the crisis that has rocked the main population centers and coastal areas of the United States. Kansas had only 482 confirmed cases of Covid-19 out of more than 200,000 cases in the country on Wednesday evening.
The disparity has placed De La Isla, a single mother and the first Latina mayor of Topeka, in the position that many other local officials are found throughout the country: Implement and apply the same strict distancing guidelines as those observed in the hardest hit regions of the country on populations not facing the disease, all to try to slow and stop the spread of the virus.
Kansas housekeeper Laura Kelly, Democrat, issued instructions to stay home earlier this week, but as mayor of the state capital, implementation falls largely to De La Isla, also Democrat, and the local officials with whom she works.
“One of the biggest challenges we face is that, because we don’t have the coast figures, we are challenged by people who don’t understand the gravity of the situation. So we have to tell people, and tell people again, about social distancing, and encourage people to make sure they follow the order of the order that we issue, so that we can protect people, “De La Isla told CNN in a virtual interview.
De La Isla spoke to CNN about the Topeka emergency operations center, where she and other city leaders like Dusty Nichols, the director of emergency management, work together on a daily basis. For the mayor, suddenly pushed to face a global pandemic at home, the rhythm of her days can be overwhelming.
Formerly homeless herself, focusing on those in need
Born in New York, De La Isla grew up mainly in Puerto Rico. She experienced homelessness during her childhood and became a teenage mother, but was able to attend university and graduate from Wichita State University, eventually moving to Topeka. She worked in public advocacy, notably for Habitat for Humanity, before winning a seat on city council in 2013 and narrowly winning her mayoral race in 2017.
De La Isla is still calling the homeless “my people” and is now working overtime to try to find a place for those who go to shelters to be properly separated, because right now, she told CNN , “There is not enough space for social distancing for this group of people who need our help. “
She reads to the children live on Facebook to help parents of Topeka who “go crazy trying to figure out how to entertain their children”. She posts videos of herself on a bike to show how to exercise safely outdoors.
“If you let the whirlwind take you away, you’re just going to go in all directions, especially in times of crisis,” she said.
What drives her, said De La Isla, is a morning meeting with her team.
“We know that at 8:00 a.m. this team meets,” she said. “Every day we have a point of contact where we will meet our group and our delegate,” she added.
One of these tasks delegated in these times: a new “Rumor Control Group” to fight bad information. For example, people who say the city is under martial law, or that someone who has tested positive for coronavirus has gone to a certain commercial location, which was not correct.
“When we hear a rumor, we all talk about it at the meeting (of the information officers) in the morning, then we say:” Okay, this is how we are going to spread this “, then based on the contact that we have from the community, we create PSAs, so the message we want to stick, sticks, “she explained.
Focus on mental health
De La Isla emphasizes the mental health of the city’s shaken residents. His team has set up what they call a “hotline” (instead of a “hotline”) for people in distress.
“The idea is to find out how to match volunteers in the community who are looking for something to do because they care and they want to do something positive, but also provide an avenue for people at home, struggling with anxiety, feeling lonely and needing someone to call and register, “said the mayor.
For students who are now learning in homes without the proper wireless internet, she and the city’s school principal are converting school buses into portable hotspots so kids can do their homework. She and her team work with churches and other nonprofit groups to ensure that children who depend on free or reduced lunch have access to food.
De La Isla has two teenage daughters at home. Like families across the country, they try to make everything work with children suddenly at home. Her daughters keep her nephew so that she and her sister, a bank teller, can get to work.
De La Isla says what keeps her up at night is whether doctors will have enough equipment if the virus hits Topeka hard and whether the two city hospitals, which also serve surrounding counties, have enough of beds.
“Like all hospitals in the country, (we) need PPE (personal protective equipment).
“If at any point one of our centers for the elderly is affected, we have the potential, right in Topeka, with a few centers for the elderly, to take care of all these beds and all these ventilators,” said De La Isla.
Congress campaign suspended
Before the coronavirus crisis, De La Isla was laser focused on his campaign for Congress – hoping to overthrow Republican Steve Watkins.
She says that although she touches the base with her campaign staff after hours, she is actually on hold.
“My message to everyone has been that if I’m not a grand mayor right now, I don’t deserve to be your congressman,” she said.
In a statement to CNN, the GOP holder said right now, they are working together.
“Mayor De La Isla and I will be fighting in November, but right now we are all at war with a common enemy, Covid-19,” said freshman student Watkins.
De La Isla sings from the same non-partisan song sheet.
“I want to make sure that our community understands that it is loved. I use this word often because I see the city as my family, my community and I absolutely love all of my citizens. Even when we disagree, “she said.