YELLOW, Texas (CNN) – Mayor Ginger Nelson thought his year would be defined by a cancer diagnosis in January. Then the pandemic came.
Now, the mayor of Amarillo, Texas, is battling a rare form of blood cancer while coordinating his city's response to COVID-19, whose cases skyrocketed in recent weeks at a local food plant. Because she is immunosuppressed by radiation treatment for her cancer and considered to be at increased risk for serious complications if she contracts the coronavirus, Nelson has spent much of the past two months working from home.
"No one expects to be on a cancer trip, and I'm 40 years old, so I'm not in the normal COVID high-risk age range, but it has given me a very empathetic perspective with someone who is," Nelson told him. CNN in a virtual interview.
That empathy, combined with his senseless leadership style, comes into play as he tries to handle a COVID-19 surge in his city right now.
Amarillo is operating at Coronavirus Level Red, the highest alert level, indicating widespread confirmed cases in the city, due in large part to an outbreak at the Tyson food plant there. She openly talks about the challenge of knowing that her residents are working in a place that could make them and their families sick. But the plant is considered critical infrastructure, and President Donald Trump has ordered them to remain open.
“Because they are critical and cannot close, they continued to work and work side by side to do their job. But also the nature of any manufacturing, any large employer where you have thousands of employees who show up on certain shifts, walk together in the hallways, change together in the same locker room, eat during their breaks or during lunch, eat at same cafeteria, ”said Nelson.
She added: "Even in the personal conversations I have had with the employees who work in the plants, they also feel the tension. And I don't know if there is a perfect way to balance it, but simply to recognize that it exists and to recognize that personal health must be top priority, and after that, we work to keep the plants open. "
Although Amarillo received 3,500 tests for coronavirus in one day due to the increase, Nelson said they still need more.
"I don't think any mayor feels they have the tests they need, because ideally I could screen all my citizens every week, and we could come up with strategies based on the test results that can safely go to work, who can go to the school safely. So we definitely need more test supplies. That said, based on test supplies that I know are available nationwide, I feel that our state and federal governments have been very receptive to the outbreak here in Amarillo, ”said Nelson. "We are an access point. We have been hit hard, and we needed those resources, and they are still reaching us."
Drastic change is like "death to life as we know it,quot;
Nelson is very much in tune with how the drastic and unexpected change that came with COVID-19 is affecting the mental health of its residents.
While families across the country are experiencing intense pain from the loss of loved ones from the virus, she believes that people who are fortunate enough to avoid it are still suffering in a different way: for society and life before the pandemic.
"We have had a death to life as we know it, and now we have to pivot and be resilient. We have to recognize the emotional and mental health effect that that has on us," he said.
He launched an awareness campaign in Amarillo, in partnership with a local television station, to try to make people who never sought emotional help aware of the local resources available to them.
"The anxieties that come through those things can't be separated into a spreadsheet or a diagram that can be: a decision tree that can say," This is the right thing to do, "he added.
Anxiety related to COVID-19 is not just an adult phenomenon, and Nelson has had regular virtual sessions with children.
Emerson, a kindergarten boy, asked what children can do to protect themselves.
“It's okay to be scared and it's okay to ask questions about what you should do to protect yourself, but I want to assure you that many people are working to keep our city safe. Even if you get sick, everything will be fine. Many doctors in our city have been studying this and are learning a lot, "Nelson replied to Emerson in that virtual chat.
Nelson had the luxury of being able to run for the mayor of Amarillo as a Republican or Democrat, the tradition of the city, which frees her to get away from politics and talk about the dangers she sees leaving Washington.
"We would never take our pain to politics, but that's where we are now. It's a very difficult environment to have conversations about how people feel," he warned.
“I want our leaders to guide us as people, not as politicians. I want them to guide us as if they were prominent families who are concerned about mortgage payments and keep the doors open to their businesses and make their payroll for their small businesses. I don't want them to go off the agendas or party lines, "he argued, with an understanding in his voice that what he is asking for now is an impossible dream.
Companies continue to open, despite the COVID-19 outbreak
Texas is one of the most aggressive states in the nation when it comes to reopening the economy and society as a whole, with what Nelson said is fine, even though his beggar city of Texas became a hotspot of COVID-19.
"Texas is a great state and there is a lot of geography to make decisions regarding our special situation because of these meat packing plants. I think it would have been a wrong decision to delay the entire state just for our county," he said.
Amarillo is also reopening its businesses, even now.
"Well, it's not a light load," Nelson said of the move to reopen.
"I think as a leader, it has never been so simple for me. It is a multifaceted problem. As I asked people to stay home, I knew that I was asking companies to close their doors, and that meant they were not going to to be able to make the mortgage payments. It meant that maybe they were going to be, if they were food insecure, they were going to worry about eating all the food they had in their pantry and not being able to go to the supermarket and buy more food. It has many facets. it's just: "Should we stay so we don't get the virus?" he said.
Governor Greg Abbott announced this week that a handful of counties, including two that include Amarillo, would delay Phase Two of the reopening process. Although the city is already loosening some restrictions, Nelson noted that there are local companies that choose to remain closed.
“We value having the right to make those decisions as individuals. That is a very American thing. I believe that in my city, the residents of Amarillo have done a responsible job of that. Many companies that saw our numbers and said, "We are not ready to open,quot; even though they had the ability to open across the state, decided not to. I think a lot of customers are doing the same thing, "said Nelson.
Nelson started an aggressive campaign on social media when his city closed with the hashtags "ALLinAmarillo,quot;, "ALLinTogether,quot;, to encourage people to understand that if they go "all-in,quot; they can flatten the curve and protect the hospital's capacity.
"We needed to send a message and convince people that this is a new form of citizenship. It is not something that we as Americans, Texans, or Yellows have had to see as a good neighbor, but going with it all means that we are taking care of each other and doing whatever it takes during this unique and challenging time to maintain our city. safe, "he explained.
It became fashionable, and people not only posted on social media but also posted posters on their windows and front lawns.
Now, she posts videos of residents encouraging each other to wear masks and maintain social distance.
"We have used the slogan,quot; I will use one for you, if you will use it for me "because it really is a new form of citizenship that would consider others and the needs of others above their own comfort, whether it be the vanity of not wearing a mask or even the discomfort of covering your nose and mouth, "Nelson said.
"I think the people in Amarillo know that stopping the spread of this disease depends largely on the decisions we make as individuals," he added.
Mom of three, working from home
Because she is immunosuppressed by radiation treatment for her cancer, Nelson has spent much of the past two months working from home and facing challenges that many working parents can relate to these days. During one of his virtual press conferences, his daughter was in the next room taking a remote ballet class, and her son was in another room taking trombone classes.
"All of that is happening in the background, playing the trombone, ballet music, and I have difficult questions to answer about how the city is responding to keep people safe during a global pandemic." And I thought, "Wow, I hope I don't forget this moment because it is what it is par excellence," Nelson recalled.
The Mayor of Amarillo credits her family, especially her husband, and her faith for helping her survive.
"You don't live your life every day as if it had an end, but a cancer diagnosis will change so quickly. And then you bring something like this COVID and it has really given our family the gift of savoring time together and recognizing that relationships that we have are important and we want to invest in them and take care of each other, ”said Nelson.
(The-CNN-Wire ™ and © 2020 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner company contributed to this report. All rights reserved.)