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Gibbie Harris is The Post's 2020 Newsmaker of the Year
Advocate for public health before, beyond COVID-19
Published Wednesday, December 30, 2020
by Herbert L. White

Mecklenburg County Health Director Gibbie Harris,The Post’s 2020 Newsmaker of the Year, has been an outspoken advocate of health care equity in marginalized communities long before the coronavirus pandemic.

COVID-19 put public health in the forefront of conversations about race, politics and safety.

And Gibbie Harris is in the middle of Mecklenburg County’s response to issues the pandemic has laid bare over the last 10 months.

Harris, the county’s health director, is The Post’s Newsmaker of the Year. If 2020 were a typical news year, presidential politics and racial justice activism would have dominated coverage, but the coronavirus, which has killed more than 335,000 Americans and caused disproportionate damage in the Black community, eclipsed both.

As of Dec. 28, there were 60,930 cases of novel coronavirus infection in Mecklenburg County with 552 deaths. It’s Harris’ job to impart details in a pandemic world: the grim reality of infections and death during a global health crisis, working with government agencies and the medical community on testing protocols and access to vaccines, which recently arrived in limited supply.

Harris is the first public health professional – and first health professional at any level – to earn Newsmaker of the Year. U.S. Senate candidate Harvey Gantt earned the inaugural distinction in 1990.

In an interview with The Post, Harris discussed how COVID-19 changed Mecklenburg County, the disparities it revealed, lessons learned for future pandemics and public response to social distancing and face coverings. Answers are edited for brevity.  

How COVID changed daily living:
“COVID has turned everybody’s world upside down this year, I believe, in any number of ways. It’s more than a single pandemic as far as I'm concerned because of the impact that it's had on not just from a health perspective but also an economic perspective, a social perspective, and behavioral health perspective. And in many cases a spiritual perspective for people.

“It has really challenged all of us and required us to think differently about how we act in the work that we do. And in many cases for some of our some of our most challenged population has really made life, extremely difficult, I think.”

Early recognition of the coronavirus risk:
“For me, COVID started back in late December (2019), early January when we first started getting word of this virus and learning a bit more about it, and then starting to have conversations in the county about what it could mean for us, and things really sort of hit the fan in March. It has been a year of uncertainty, a year of changes, chronic changes, whether that’s in what’s going on with the virus, what’s going on in terms of requirements and what we’re asking the community to do, whether that has to do with the guidance that we're getting on how to operate.

“It's just been a constant year of change and change is hard when it's like that and when it's so fluid it’s almost on a daily basis, a part of the challenge has been working with our staff to make sure they have the resources they need, but also just to support them and the day to day work they’re doing.”

Mecklenburg residents’ response  to requests to limit the virus’ spread:
“I think it’s a mixed bag. In the beginning, especially when we had the stay-at-home order, I think there was a lot of compliance around that. COVID was so new, people were sort of scared of it and weren’t sure what to expect. We saw a lot of compliance early on. As this has dragged out, people have become more frustrated with it and everyone just wants things to get back to normal. Unfortunately, this virus is not working with us in the same way, so we’ve had to continue to ask people to wear their masks and social distance and I will tell you that I believe that the majority of our community has done a great job of doing that.

“Obviously we have some challenges from time to time and most of those show up on social media. So, you're seeing the bars and restaurants that might not be complying, and you're hearing from people who don't like the things that we’re asking them to do. But I get emails every day from people who are grateful that we’re asking folks to do those things and wanting me to enforce people doing those things. Again, that goes back to a lot of what we’re asking is for individual compliance and for people stepping up and doing the right things.”

Tailoring the message that masking and social distancing can save lives:
“I do believe that the message has to be tailored and that has been challenging but necessary. We have different populations in our community that respond differently number one they receive their messages differently. We've got a fairly young population here and if you look at our data most of our cases, the majority of our cases have been in age group 20 to 59 with a larger number in the 20 to 39 age range, so the messaging for them, obviously, has to be different than it has to be for our older community.

“And then of course for effects of chronic diseases we need them to understand the risk that those chronic diseases place them in with this virus. So, we’ve had to tailor those messages and have tried to do that effectively. It’s not just tailoring the messages, it’s also who is the messenger because people accept messages differently from different individuals and different groups of individuals, so we’ve tried to pay attention to that as well. That will continue as we start rolling out the vaccine.”

Why ethnicity wasn’t included with early infection reports, which later confirmed a disproportionate impact on communities of color:
“Actually, the fact that that was not necessarily being reported in the beginning was more a function of how the data was being collected. So, what happened early on as systems were being created to capture the data, we had laboratories that were reporting some data to the state electronically. Some of them are doing it by paper and fax, and then that data would be dumped into the system at the state level it is sent to us.

“At that point, the state was just trying to get the data in about the positive test results and contact information so we could do the contact tracing we needed to do and making sure that people who were positive knew they were positive.

“Then the state went a little bit further and started requiring these folks to do as much of electronically as they could, but also to start including the race and ethnicity data. Unfortunately, the state has required it but not necessarily enforced it. We still see that close to 25% to 30% of our test results come through without race and ethnicity and ethnicity data and we try to collect that when we have conversations with individuals about their positive test results, but sometimes that's challenging to get over the phone, so I think it was probably function in the beginning of just being in a rush to at least recognize the positive test results.

“We created a system here for us to collect data but then the state required us to be part of their system, and we had to see if we could get the two systems to talk together so everybody's been scrambling. We’re doing the same thing with vaccine right now the state has created a new system for us to manage the vaccine inventory and the people that are getting vaccine but it’s a brand-new system and it has lots of kinks in it, so the data has been an ongoing challenge. We do our best to get information out to the community but it's a quickly evolving situation we’ve had with COVID.”

Lessons learned from the pandemic:
“I certainly hope that we're learning from this and that we will take the things that we’ve learned as we move through this pandemic and apply them not only to future pandemics but to the way we operate on a regular basis. We train regularly. We do contact tracing already before COVID came along with other communicable diseases, but not at the scale that we've had here. I would believe that some of the things we’ve learned, and some of the systems that have been put in place we will continue to use those and continue to tweak them and make them better.

“But in addition to that, I believe, based on everything that I know, this won’t be the last time that we deal with something like this and that we need to learn from what’s happened this time, what’s worked well, what didn’t work well and make sure that we’re better prepared next time.”

How the pandemic has exposed gaps in health and health care access:
“We know we have disparities in our community in a number of different areas. Health is obviously one of them. We have disparities in chronic diseases, we have disparities in infant mortality we have disparities in HIV. So, from a health perspective we know that exists. We know that there are disparities with access to care, whether in health care as well as in behavioral health services and we know there’s disparities in poverty and housing and in education.

“We talk about social determinants, we talk about the need to make changes that are going to improve the lives of everybody in our community. But these are big issues, and it's really hard for people to wrap their arms around them in a way where we can make significant change, and significant change impacts everybody. If we’re going to make significant changes in our system that impact these disparities, then that means changes that improve the lives of those who experienced these disparities, but it also means changes in the lives of people who are privileged and who don't experience these disparities.

“So, it becomes a challenge sometimes in making sure that people know what is going to have to happen to improve these situations and to get that commitment to happen. My hope is that COVID has made these issues so stark for our community that it will move us to action, and not just developing plans and having conversations and doing little bits and pieces of things here and there, because I think it's going to take some big changes for us to really make the difference that we’re saying we want to see.”

If you have questions about COVID-19 of the flu, call the Public Health Hotline at (980) 314-9400 weekdays from  8 a.m.-5 p.m. and weekends from 10 a.m.-2 p.m.


Bravo to Gibbie Harris for her dedicated work and bravo to the Post for recognizing her efforts and value to the community
Posted on January 2, 2021

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