New health director criticized for linking high HIV rates to Charlotte being a ‘party town’

Updated: Nov. 13, 2017 at 4:12 PM EST
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CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - CHARLOTTE, NC (Fred Clasen-Kelly/The Charlotte Observer) - New Mecklenburg County Health Director Gibbie Harris says Charlotte is a "party town" and that is a major reason it has one of the highest rates of new HIV infections in the country.

The comments drew strong rebukes from experts and a county commissioner, who said Harris was trafficking in stereotypes that cast people who contract the virus as sexually promiscuous.

Mecklenburg suffers from a rate of 30.4 new diagnoses per 100,000 people, more than twice the national average and nearly two times the norm in North Carolina. The cases are heavily concentrated in low-income neighborhoods in Charlotte, a recent county report shows.

At an Oct. 24 County Board of Commissioners meeting, some officials criticized the county's failure to stop the disease from spreading. Asked why the outcomes were so much worse than the state overall, Harris laid part of the blame on partying.

After citing opioid drug addiction and demographics, Harris suggested that tourists visiting town for the weekend were infecting residents.

Mecklenburg is home to more than 1 million people and encompasses Charlotte, the Carolinas' largest city.

"In cities like Charlotte, which draws a lot of people in, it can be a party town," Harris said. "It can be a place where people come in, enjoy themselves for the weekend and then leave but leave stuff behind."

Commissioners did not question Harris' response at the time, but others said the remarks are offensive.

Harris' comments came during a sparsely attended commissioners' meeting and initially drew little public notice. But negative reaction has grown as word spread among some Health Department employees.

On Monday, Commissioner Pat Cotham criticized the statement as insensitive.

"It made me want to cringe," Cotham said. "It made light of it. It felt offensive. I know people with AIDS. They are going to feel hurt."

"We have people in abusive relationships, trading sex for a place to live," said Jaysen McMaster-Foreman, a benefits manager at RAIN, a nonprofit that supports people living with HIV and AIDS. "They are not in a position to demand their abuser wear a condom."

The South is home to about 37 percent of the nation's population, but more than half of new HIV infections. Researchers, AIDS activists and even county officials say systemic issues such as income inequality, lack of health insurance, little affordable housing and social stigmas associated with the disease explain the disparity.

"It is depressing" a public-health leader would make such a comment, said Susan Reif, who conducts studies on HIV for Duke University's Center for Health Policies and Inequalities Research. "That's a mischaracterization. Our clients are not being infected because they are out partying. That is stigmatizing."

Harris, who had worked as interim health director since June, was named to the permanent post last month. She replaced Marcus Plescia who resigned under pressure earlier this year following admissions the agency failed to notify patients about abnormal Pap smears and their potential risks of cervical cancer.

Harris has spent parts of her 25-year career in government as health director in Buncombe and Wake counties.

In a written response to questions from the Observer, County Manager Dena Diorio appeared to defend Harris' comments.

"Gibbie was referring to events in large metropolitan areas that attract crowds of residents and visitors where higher-risk behavior could occur," Diorio said. "She has direct knowledge of these in Wake County and along the east coast, and has heard anecdotaly that they also occur in Mecklenburg County. Public Health will continue working with residents and visitors to encourage them to protect themselves and others."

On Monday, Harris' also received support from Commissioner Bill James.

"Gibbie was right," James said in an email to county officials. "Promiscuity and lack of monogamy is the primary reason for the spread HIV-AIDS."