Members of Squashing the Spread Bulloch, a volunteer group formed in mid-2020 to boost local efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19, are asking Statesboro’s mayor and council to adopt the organization as a continuing, official city commission.
If adopted, Squashing the Spread – or Mayor Jonathan McCollar has suggested the possibility of a new name such as Healthy Boro – would become the fourth current city commission authorized since McCollar first took office in January 2018. Four commissions have previously been established, but two were combined, leaving three at this point.
Those three are the One Boro Commission, the Statesboro Youth Commission and the recently created Greener Boro Commission.
These commissions, made up of volunteers, including voting members appointed by City Council, have an advisory role to the mayor and council and are expected to issue reports. They are also assigned community education or promotional roles on their topics, namely community unity and diversity; youth development programs and career opportunities; and sustainability and the local environment.
But public health and wellness would be a new topic for a commission adopted by Statesboro’s city government.
“One of our main goals in becoming a city commission is not just to focus solely on COVID-19 but to really help the quality of life, wellbeing and health of citizens of Statesboro,” Karen Naufel, Ph.D., chair of Squashing the Spread, said in a brief interview. “We want to promote health equity. We want to foster wellbeing. We want to increase the accessibility of resources.”
The volunteers “recognize that the Department of Public Health plays a big role in this,” but want “to help further their reach,” and “foster trust,” she said.
In other words, Squashing the Spread members want to apply what they’ve learned about the community response to COVID in the past two years to put people in touch with local resources that address other health concerns.
“I know from the work that I’ve done how we can get mobilized and listen to communities,” Naufel said. “I know what works and what doesn’t, and we can expand the outreach, the efforts that are already here, and improve accessibility.”
Another of the Squash the Spread member volunteers is District 5 City Councilwoman Shari Barr. She and Naufel said there are currently seven “very active” members but other volunteers have been involved.
“Squashing’ so far
In the six months from the time Squashing the Spread Bulloch was formed in July 2020 until December of that year, the group distributed 70,000 face masks free to people in Bulloch County. Since then the group has hosted numerous “pop-up” COVID-19 vaccination clinics, working with the Georgia Department of Public Health and the multistate and international organization CORE, or Community Organized Relief Effort, who actually administered the shots.
Other Squashing the Spread efforts, also partnering with other organizations, have placed and publicized testing clinics and, more recently, kiosks and other locations with free tests. This summer, the groups promoted the availability of COVID-19 vaccinations for children age 6 months and up through the Bulloch County Health Department and other locations.
The volunteers partnered with the city and the NAACP on some after-school events. Some of this recent outreach can be seen on the group’s Facebook page, “Squashing the Spread Bulloch,” and website, www.squashthespread.com.
For Squashing the Spread’s work during the earlier phases of the pandemic, McCollar previously awarded the group a ceremonial key to the city. Naufel, a full professor in Georgia Southern University’s psychology department, has also been recognized by the Society for Teaching Psychology with its Civic Engagement Award for her leadership in these efforts.
City commission status for Squashing the Spread was not on the agenda for Tuesday’s 9 a.m. City Council meeting. But the mayor brought it up near the end of the meeting, which was a short one, under the “Other Business from Council ,” line item.
“I support tremendously for them to come as a new commission for the city of Statesboro, one (reason) being a debt to them for the service that they provided to our community during the COVID situation, and with that understanding I think it would be a great opportunity for us to be not just prepared for another pandemic but to look at the overall health of our citizens,” McCollar said.
He suggested that the council direct City Attorney Cain Smith to draft an ordinance to authorize the new commission. Barr then asked Naufel, who noted that she had not expected to do so, to speak to the council. City sponsorship, she said, could help the organization form new partnerships with other organizations and recruit more volunteers.
Directions to the city attorney during Tuesday’s first regular meeting of the month, held at 9 a.m., could have led to discussion of the draft ordinance two weeks from now, during a council work session before the second regular meeting at 5:30 p.m. Sept. 20. The council could then have voted on a first reading of the ordinance during that meeting.
Not decided yet
But District 1 Councilman Phil Boyum said he wanted to approach the creation of a new commission more cautiously. He noted that, during Tuesday’s meeting, the council had approved the first reading of an ordinance amendment that will set staggered terms for voting members of the One Boro Commission, originally the Statesboro Commission on Diversity and Inclusion.
So, more than two years after that commission was formally created, its rules are still being worked out, Boyum noted.
“Those are the kinds of things that are generally discussed at the beginning, before you create an issue,” he said. “So, I wouldn’t mind having a work session where we discuss this (the Squashing the Spread request) and determine what the purpose is, what the focus is, because, quite frankly, cities don’t traditionally provide health services of this kind.”
Most of the services the city provided during the pandemic were through or in partnership with the Bulloch County Health Department, Boyum said.
He also argued that, for grant funding opportunities, organizations sometimes fare better “outside the city structure than inside.”
McCollar noted that many cities across the nation are involved in providing public health services, but he did not argue about the timing of the discussion and first vote. Neither did Barr, who informally agreed that a further discussion could be held during the Aug. 20 afternoon work session without a first-reading hearing and vote being scheduled for the 5:30 p.m. regular meeting that day.
“I don’t think there’s any push in time line,” Barr said. “So if you wanted to look at it as a line item in two weeks, I don’t have any objection to that.”
Council members concluded Tuesday’s meeting without giving any formal direction to Smith, so the topic appears headed for discussion at the Sept. 20 work session with no draft ordinance to be presented yet.