Mecklenburg County Public Health Director Gibbie Harris discusses upcoming retirement

She served as a source of information - and for many - a voice of reason in a time of uncertainty.
Published: Jul. 22, 2021 at 6:01 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Mecklenburg County Public Health Director Gibbie Harris was on your screens across the county during the coronavirus pandemic, providing updates on a virus that no one knew much about.

She also served as a source of information, and for many, a voice of reason in a time of uncertainty.

Her career in healthcare spans more than two decades, serving in roles including the health director in Wake and Buncombe counties.

In 2017, she arrived as a consultant for the Mecklenburg County public health department, but within months became the health director.

Almost four years later, she announced she will be retiring at the end of the year.

Harris says she did not start out in public health, but quickly realized it was her passion.

“Once I got out of nursing school after working the hospital for a couple years, I recognized that was not where I wanted to spend my time, so I went back and became a nurse practitioner,” Harris said. “At some point, I got tired from people dying from preventable diseases so I went back and got a masters in public health.”

Harris said she did not imagine navigating a pandemic during her career.

“I was not expecting it,” she said. “We always knew it was a possibility. We have a pandemic plan that we work every year. But I don’t know that we anticipated that we’d still be dealing with it 17 months later.”

“I will tell you there were days when we would say one thing and the guidance would change the next,” she said. “There was quite a bit of frustration around that, because we knew that was challenging for the community to hear. Who do they trust? We were learning as we went.”

She says she pushed through the personal stress because there was so much work to be done.

When asked whether the stress of the pandemic played a role in her retirement announcement, she says it did not.

“Not really,” she said. “It was the right time. I have two grandkids that I know I’ll be spending more time with. My family is important to me so becoming more of a regular in that family unit.”

Harris said vaccine hesitancy was expected to a degree.

“It’s not terribly surprising,” she said. “We know we have issues with vaccine hesitancy in our community around other vaccines. We understand people have the right to make decisions. We value that, that’s part of who we are as Americans. But at the same time, it is frustrating sometimes if you’re not being vaccinated just because ‘it’s not going to affect me’, then you’re not thinking about the rest of your community, you’re not thinking about being part of the final solution.”

As the Delta variant spreads, she knows the work is far from over.

“Everybody’s so tired of the restrictions, and I don’t blame them,” she said. “But the message is you don’t like the restrictions, here’s the answer, and it’s called a vaccine, and if we get more people vaccinated hopefully that never has to be on the table again.”

Harris says her passion for public health is not going away and she has already told her staff that she will be there to support them and offer any assistance she can even after she retires.

She says she is looking forward to traveling and spending more time with her family.

Her husband lives in Asheville, so she has been largely been apart from him over the past year and a half as she has dedicated her life to keeping the residents of Mecklenburg County safe.

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