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Mecklenburg County Health Director Gibbie Harris To Retire

Mecklenburg County Public Health Director Gibbie Harris
Claire Donnelly

Mecklenburg County health director Gibbie Harris has announced that she will retire at the end of the year, after nearly four years in the role.

"This has been a difficult decision for me," Harris told county commissioners at their meeting Wednesday night. "Public health is my passion. This county has been good to public health since I've been here."

Harris became Mecklenburg’s health director in 2017, after working for years as the health director in Buncombe and Wake counties. Deputy Public Health Director Raynard Washington will replace Harris beginning in January 2022.

The announcement comes after more than a year in which Harris has been the public face of the fight against COVID-19 in the county. On March 24, under Harris' leadership, Mecklenburg County became the first county in North Carolina to issue a stay-at-home order, a decision Harris said she and other leaders did not arrive at lightly. Gov. Roy Cooper issued a statewide stay-at-home order three days later.

“I don’t know that I anticipated in my career responding to a pandemic,” Harris told WFAE in April 2020.

In a statement posted to the Mecklenburg County website on Wednesday night, Harris said it had been "an honor" to work as the county's top health official.

"I have had the distinct pleasure of working alongside many dedicated and hard-working public health staff, volunteers, and partners during my time here," she said. "I sincerely appreciate the opportunity to serve the Mecklenburg community with them and, more importantly, the outstanding jobs and important work they have done and continue to do every day."

"Gibbie is a true public health professional who has worked to bring competency, leadership, respect and trust to Public Health in Mecklenburg County," Dena Diorio, Mecklenburg County Manager, also said in the statement. "Thanks to her leadership, we have truly been able to help improve the quality of life for our residents. I wish her and her family the best of luck."

Harris has been praised by some county leaders for her handling of the pandemic but she has also fielded criticism. In January, many Mecklenburg County residents were left confused and scrambling after Harris issued a surprise directive that advocated for using "full-virtual options for work, school and other activity where in-person activity is not required"— a reversal of Harris' previous stance on in-person school. It was issued about an hour before the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board was scheduled to meet to discuss having students return to the classroom.

In March and April 2020, Harris came under fire for her approach to the virus in minority communities. Q City Metro journalist Glenn Burkins published an opinion piece March 30 in which he argued leaders failed to recognize that the virus was disproportionately affecting the county’s African American residents.

Washington, who has served as second-in-command for the department and has helped lead the COVID-19 response, said in the statement: "I'm honored to have been chosen for this role. It has been a privilege to serve with an incredible team of public health professionals in our department over the past year. We strive every day to protect and improve the health of our community and make good health possible for everyone. I'm looking forward to continuing to work together in serving the residents of Mecklenburg County."

Claire Donnelly is WFAE's health reporter. She previously worked at NPR member station KGOU in Oklahoma and also interned at WBEZ in Chicago and WAMU in Washington, D.C. She holds a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and attended college at the University of Virginia, where she majored in Comparative Literature and Spanish. Claire is originally from Richmond, Virginia. Reach her at cdonnelly@wfae.org or on Twitter @donnellyclairee.