Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Michelle de la Isla

Steve Clemons: It's wonderful to see you. Thank you much for joining us. You know, very on early in this crisis, I began getting Google alerts on what you were saying and what you were doing early. And early in the crisis Topeka was a place where there wasn't much incidents. It was everywhere else. It wasn't there. But then it began to perk up, and we wouldn't say it went to DEFCON Five, but maybe to DEFCON Three. So, I would just like to hear from you how this has changed the community, how you have tried to comfort them, but not panic them.

Michelle De La Isla: You know, I think that being completely transparent with all the information that we have available is paramount at this time. I think that all of us at this point in time are being bombarded. I think that Gallup this week used the word “infodemic,” of having so much information that you just don't know what to sort through. And we here in our community, Topeka and Shawnee County, have been very consistent with regular factual information to our constituents so that they know exactly what is happening at the local level without being bogged down with what's happening at the national. Our community has changed in the sense that we just like everybody had a safer at home ordinance. Everybody had to stay at home. We were very successful early on on stopping the incidents of the virus. But just yesterday we had 17 cases in our community and we're seeing 51 cases that are active as of this morning. So, we're not in a fear situation. But we're constantly communicating not only with our community through Facebook, through press conferences, but also through working with specific stakeholders that we're working on understanding the data mutually so that everybody understands what the risks are and so that we can learn to live with the virus.

 

Clemons: Mayor, I mean, what we've been seeing in some of the tenser parts of the country is a real clash from people who are just tired of being told to stay at home. This opens up a lot of fissures and pressures, whether it's business, whether it's just personal liberty. And there are other people saying “Look, don't infect us, don't infect our children, don't have our children endanger our grandparents.” How have you held that together? Have you had those kinds of problems? Or have you been able to get buy in from both corners of that tension?

De La Isla: You know, I would characterize our community like most communities in the United States, we have three camps, right? We have the individuals that are extremely concerned with regards to the virus and they don't want to leave. They don't want to leave their home. They want to stay home. They want to work from home, if possible. We have the camps of individuals that are saying absolutely not. You are not going to infringe on my liberties. I will not wear a mask. I don't believe this virus is so bad. Look at our community. We're doing great. Let's reopen. And then you have the people that are in the middle, who are the individuals that are saying, we want to go forth, but we want to do so with caution. And when you look at the graphs — I'm part of the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Program and we were just looking at the charts from Johns Hopkins today. The United States by far outpaces in regards to active cases, and we're starting to come down, and I think Brazil is starting to come up and trend with us. But the keyword was something that you just said. It's liberty. We in our country talk about our liberty. So, when you have government or officials that are health officials telling you that you must stay home and you don't trust government in itself because you are so attached to your liberties, what ends up happening is this clash of values, of wanting to remain safe at the same time that you have the incidents of wanting to also have your liberties. What I try to tell people is that yes, we have liberty, but that liberty should never be forgotten at the fact that we are responsible as well not only for ourselves, but for our fellow citizens. And as we are exercising those liberties, we have to have the facts so that we are able to protect each other

 

Clemons: One of the things I know you're doing, which I'm charmed by and I wanna listen in, is you are helping out Topeka’s parents with their kids. Tell us what you're doing.  

De La Isla: So, every Sunday around eight o'clock, I enjoy very much reading to our community children. And it's interesting because now that I have a following even in Puerto Rico because I read the books both in English and in Spanish. I used to love reading to my kids. It was one of my favorite things to do with them in a rocking chair. But now, understanding all the challenges that our parents are going through, it gives our kids something different to do and something to see. And it's my way of helping parents tell kids. “OK, we heard the stories. Time to go to bed.”

 

Clemons: Well, you know the other thing I want to put on the table if I'm not — hopefully I'm not revealing too much. But, I happen to know that you have a complex past. You are a complex, complex person and before you were mayor at one point, you were homeless. And I think one of the things we've been getting at, too, multiple times today is, you know, what do you do with the people that are not connected? What do you do with the people that are the most vulnerable? How do we get to communities there? Director [Robert] Redfield of the CDC said to me the other day, “Steve, we've got to go out and test the homeless and if they are infected, we've got to find a place for them to stay.” So, there's concern. I don't know if there's a plan, but given your insights into that world and experience, what do you think, not only in Topeka, but just what do you think we should be doing? Because I don't see everyone getting the aid and support right now they should be getting.

De La Isla: The first thing that we need to do is get enough testing. I think that we talk about the amount of testing that each community is receiving, and we just don't have enough. In Shawnee County, for example, our hospitals now have the privilege that they're working on the reagents so that they can do testing for individuals that are about to have a procedure. But we don't have that yet widely cast out into our community. With regards to the homeless population, yes, I am extremely attached to our homeless population. I love them and I interact regularly with Barry Feaker, who is the person that runs the rescue mission. And even before we had cases in our community, we were talking with regards to what were the needs that our rescue mission had and how were we gonna best mitigate that? We even talked about even getting a hotel if that was a possibility, which we almost achieved. But the problem was making sure that the residents of the mission and our guests had the ability to have the safety networks that they needed in order for them to be successful: the food, the supportive services. But also, in addition to that, how are we gonna get them to have the testing that they needed in case we started to have incidents in regards to that population, which is already immune compromised. So, we have been working very closely with them developing structures and protocols for them so that the rescue mission knows that they have the support that they need in case something were to happen.

 

Clemons: Do you think there are things that the federal government should be doing, you know, as it's designing these programs and multitrillion-dollar packages, You know, I just don't know, are those communities on the map? Are they not on the map?

De La Isla: Right now, I want to congratulate and thank our Congress and the Senate for the work that they've been doing at creating these packages that are phenomenal. There's been a really big bipartisan effort happening in D.C. However, I do feel like there is not enough testing and support and resources specifically for this population. In addition to that, a lot of the resources that are needed are — there’s families that are going by the wayside, because they feel like they are not able to receive that support. I'll give you an example. We recently started a free clinic that you could drive through at one of our local hospitals for people to receive free testing. But the tests are still not enough in order for us to do broad testing like we need in the African American, the Hispanic population, and in the homeless population that are in such need because we know that there's 40 percent of individuals that are walking around without any symptoms, that once they end up in a location where there is a population that is already predisposed to having this virus impact them much strongly, then would be in a worse situation. So, we need additional testing and we need to figure out ways of supporting our rescue missions in our communities that are in such need.

 

Clemons: Mayor, you started something called the Rumor Control Group. Tell us about that.  

De La Isla: Well, I don't want to take credit for that one. We started the incident command team under Dusty Nichols, who is our emergency management incident commander. We were figuring out ways that we could use our volunteers and immediately came up with this Rumor Control Task Force, which is volunteers that have a Facebook page so that whenever we hear that there is a rumor, we have a group of PIO’s from all of our community that help us come up with graphics and put it out there and just demystify any of that. Those volunteers are priceless to our community. And, for example, Brenda Blackman, she is a teacher that should have been working and she spends all day in the incident command center sitting down, getting those calls in and passing them onto a team so that we could have good information out for the public. Our community is very fortunate to have amazing people that are willing to give up their time to make our community safe.

 

Clemons: Let me just, in the last minute — it's been a great day — tell me, just who are some of your other health heroes?

De La Isla: Some of my who?

 

Clemons: Health heroes in your community

De La Isla: You know, I think that this is a great time in our country for us to talk about not just the nurses and the doctors, but our CNAs. Our CNAs are phenomenal. The clerks at the pharmacy desk that are not the certified pharmacist, but they are the ones that are having that face-to-face contact with you. Those individuals that are delivering food, the people that are helping meals on wheels, the people that are working that cash register, the people that are helping you get your food and your nourishment, these are individuals that are being paid more than likely $7.25 or $7.50, and these are heroes. These are the individuals that are keeping our economy going, and I think that we have to take a broader look at how we sustain these individuals that may not be able to have a cost of living that puts them in a position to be a little bit more susceptible to this virus. It helps us have a broader conversation of our values in this country. They are my heroes.