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'The timing is right' | Gibbie Harris discusses upcoming retirement, future of health department

In an interview for Flashpoint, Harris said the pandemic was not a factor in her decision to retire. She discussed the lessons learned and the work left to do.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Gibbie Harris was hired to clean up a troubled health department in Mecklenburg County in 2017. As she prepares for retirement, she says she'll be leaving it better than she found it. 

Harris announced her plans for retirement on Wednesday before the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners during a COVID-19 update, a routine agenda item for the past year and a half. 

"This wasn't exactly how I thought I'd end my public health career as a health director but you just never know in public health," Harris said in regards to a grueling and deadly pandemic she's helped guide the community through during her last couple of years as health director. 

When Harris retires in December, she will have held the role for a little over four years. 

Her tenure in Mecklenburg County is only a fraction of her storied career in public health. She's spent 30 years in the field that has included positions as health director for Wake and Buncombe counties. 

In 2011, she was named North Carolina’s Health Director of the Year. 

She's also led a list of successes. During her role in Mecklenburg County, she addressed a Hepatitis A outbreak, put in place a PrEP initiative to prevent the spread of HIV, created and implemented a community HIV prevention plan, created an Office of Violence Prevention, steered health officials and the public through the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, among other achievements. 

"I am passionate about public health and the work we do for our community," Harris said in an interview for Flashpoint. 

In previous conversations with Harris throughout the pandemic, she was passionate about seeing it through in the battle against COVID-19. 

Harris insists the COVID-19 response and the stress that came with her role while responding through the crisis did not contribute to her decision to retire. 

"If anything, I wanted to make sure that we were far enough through this pandemic that I was comfortable leaving the position," Harris said. 

"The timing is right," she said, noting she was already retired when she took the job with Mecklenburg County. "The timing is good for me in terms of my family, and I need to spend more time with my family."

Throughout her stay at Mecklenburg County, Harris will be the first to tell you there have been lessons learned, especially through the pandemic response. 

"One of the things that I've learned is a couple of months in, we probably should have brought in some additional -- we brought in a lot of temporary staff -- but we used a lot of our staff to provide the leadership and oversight for the work," Harris added. "Having some additional support there would have been good."

Harris also said she wished she would have been more forceful in making sure staff took paid time off during the pandemic to alleviate the workload and take a break. 

"The changes in the guidance have created challenges for our community," she said explaining another challenge to be tackled for another health crisis. "People have gotten to a place where they don't know who to trust, how to trust the information, where they need to get their information from -- that's been challenging as well."

She believes she's leaving the department in good hands. Dr. Raynard Washington, who is currently the deputy health director, will take over after she retires at the end of the year. 

"We have a capable individual (Washington) who we have brought on and has been with us through the pandemic, and is going to be available to serve as the next health director," Harris said. "It feels good to have someone in that position who I can continue to work with over the next six months and transition the department in a good way."

Contact Hunter Sáenz at hsaenz@wcnc.com and follow him on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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