Gibbie Harris, who led Charlotte's COVID response, looks back on her public health career
Before COVID-19, Gibbie Harris’ job was not an especially public one. Now, she gets recognized in the grocery store – even if she’s wearing a mask.
“You know, most folks just say, ‘Oh, I’ve seen you on TV.’ Or some folks actually thank me for the work that I’m doing,” Harris said. “And most folks who really don’t like what I’m telling them to do don’t bother saying anything to me, which is fine.”
Though she’d been working as Mecklenburg County’s health director since 2017, in 2020, the pandemic thrust Harris into the spotlight. She’s held sometimes-daily news conferences and helped make local decisions about shutdowns, mask mandates, testing and vaccines.
“I mean, there were plenty of times during the pandemic when I woke up in the morning and said, ‘I just want to go back to sleep. I don’t really know that I want to deal with this today,’” Harris said.
Harris spent much of the past two years living in a Charlotte apartment far from her family in Asheville. She’s worked long hours, sometimes taking a break to walk around her neighborhood or watch what she calls “junky TV.”
In July, Harris announced that she’d step down at the end of this year. She said there wasn’t one decisive moment — it just seemed like the right time. But retirement has kind of snuck up on her.
“I haven’t had a counter on my computer for the last year or anything like that,” Harris said.
Mostly, she’s been too busy.
Before her final presentation to the Mecklenburg County Commission on Dec. 21, commissioners gave her a standing ovation.
“Lots of sleepless nights, long hours, to say the least, over the last couple of years,” Commissioner Mark Jerrell told her. “We just appreciate everything. And you’ve just been a fighter this whole time.”
Harris was also presented with an award from Gov. Roy Cooper, The Order of the Longleaf Pine, for her service to the state.
But during her time in Mecklenburg County, Harris has faced some criticism.
In March 2020, Q City Metro publisher Glenn Burkins argued that county leaders — including Harris — failed to recognize the virus was disproportionately affecting African Americans.
Harris says the county learned from those concerns when it came to vaccine distribution.
“I have to credit our staff with putting together the vaccine equity plan before vaccines ever hit Mecklenburg County and staying true to those efforts and making the effort to get the vaccines out to the people that needed it the most,” Harris said.
And in the summer of 2020, Harris emailed her counterpart in Cabarrus County and said she supported sending kids back to school in person, but did not make the same recommendation for Mecklenburg County school kids.
Some Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools parents, like Nick Foy, were confused and frustrated.
“She definitely could have gone farther in describing very clearly to the school board what the risks were of keeping kids out of school and I feel like she knew that, given the nature of the email that she sent,” Foy said.
Foy and four other parents later sued CMS to try to force the district to bring kids back in person.
Despite the stress and struggles of leading during the pandemic, Harris says it’s not why she decided to retire.
“It’s the right time for me and my family – for me to spend more time with them,” Harris said. “It’s the right time for the organization to have new leadership to take it to the next level.”
Harris said in the first months of retirement, she’s looking forward to spending more time with her husband and two grandchildren. She’ll also get back to her hobbies like quilting, needlework, gardening and hiking.
But Harris says she won’t be able to give up public health work entirely and might jump back in to do some consulting or volunteer work.
"I’m gonna have to play this by ear,” Harris said. “I’m just real clear that I’m not gonna be able to go back to Asheville and just sit down.”
Starting Jan. 1, Harris will be replaced by the county’s deputy health director, Dr. Raynard Washington.