Gibbie Harris: 'I Don't Know That I Anticipated In My Career Responding To A Pandemic'
Gibbie Harris has had some trouble sleeping lately. Part of it, as Harris said recently, is that her biggest struggle is "shutting her brain down at night."
It's no wonder. The Mecklenburg County Public Health Director, a previously somewhat behind-the-scenes role, now leads the local response to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. She gives press conferences at least weekly. She fields criticism and angry emails. And she's responsible for keeping people in the county healthy and safe.
“We train for, expect and plan for situations like this in public health all the time. Part of our role is to be ready to respond,” Harris said during a recent evening phone interview.
“I don’t know that I anticipated in my career responding to a pandemic.”
Mecklenburg County had 1,098 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 21 related deaths as of Thursday evening. It's the most of both statistics in any county in North Carolina.
On March 24, Mecklenburg County became the first county in the state to issue a stay-at-home order, a decision Harris said she and other leaders did not arrive at lightly. The county had a mounting number of coronavirus cases and community spread, meaning officials could no longer trace the virus to recent travel or known contact with someone who tested positive, Harris said.
Gov. Roy Cooper issued a statewide stay-at-home order three days later.
Harris said she has received a number of angry emails from residents who are frustrated by losing their jobs or being stuck at home.
“I understand where they’re coming from," she said. "People are stressed. Some are depressed. Some are anxious and some are angry. And I can’t take it personally. If I took it personally it could potentially paralyze me and I can’t let that happen.”
Harris hasn’t seen her own family since February -- they live in Asheville and Harris rents an apartment in Charlotte -- but she talks with them every night, either on the phone or using FaceTime. Harris watched her grandchildren hunt for Easter eggs via video Sunday.
"I don't think I've had a hug in awhile," Harris said.
Harris became Mecklenburg’s health director in 2017, after working for years as the health director in Buncombe and Wake counties.
Former colleague Regina Petteway remembered Harris leading the opening of a Wake County shelter for hundreds of Hurricane Katrina victims. She also helped the community combat sexually transmitted infections and HIV/AIDS.
“Gibbie was progressive enough to help us do things like non-traditional testing where we would go into nightclubs and into places at all hours of the night and take testing to people where they were,” Petteway said.
Harris has faced some criticism for her handling of the coronavirus in Mecklenburg County -- notably for the approach to the virus in minority communities and refusing to release full county data associated with COVID-19.
Q City Metro journalist Glenn Burkins published an opinion piece March 30 criticizing county leadership. Burkins argued leaders failed to recognize that the virus was disproportionately affecting the county’s African American residents.
Nursing homes across Mecklenburg County have been plagued by coronavirus outbreaks. While some places in the U.S. have released the names of affected homes, Harris has defended her decision not to identify them locally.
And Harris initially downplayed the virus, according to former county commissioner Matthew Ridenhour.
“How many times did we hear from her that there was a 'low risk in Mecklenburg County, cough into your sleeve, don’t go to work if you’re sick and wash your hands?'” Ridenhour said, adding officials like Harris could have done more to prepare residents.
Harris said she also wonders whether she and other officials should have acted sooner.
“I’d be very surprised if we didn’t have cases prior to the first diagnosis that we had in the county,” she said.
When coronavirus cases started to appear in the U.S., Mecklenburg County and others were in the midst of flu season. Harris said that since flu and COVID-19 can have similar symptoms, health officials may have missed cases.
“Some of the hindsight that we have now would’ve been nice to know at the time because we may have acted a little differently and a little more aggressively," she said. "But unfortunately, that’s the way hindsight works."
Harris said she has a bucket list of places she would like to visit, like New Zealand and Ireland, when the coronavirus pandemic ends.
But right now she said she’s focused on getting the county back to “whatever normal might look like.”
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