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'I'm ready to let it go' | After tirelessly working through the pandemic, health director ready to retire

Deputy Health Director Raynard Washington will take over as Health Director in Mecklenburg County when Gibbie Harris retires at the end of the year.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Mecklenburg County Health Director Gibbie Harris has led the county through the COVID-19 pandemic for the last 2 years. In July she announced that at the end of this year, she’ll retire.

There’s a poster hanging on the wall of Harris’ office in the health department. It was a gift and it’s a play on the county’s public health initiative “Count on me CLT.” The poster says “Count on Gibbie CLT,” and so many people have throughout the pandemic.

But as she packs up her office and prepares for retirement, Harris gives credit to her team.

“Public health staff step up all the time but to see them step up and to continue to do that for over two years to support this community has been something I’m incredibly proud of,” she told WCNC Charlotte’s Chloe Leshner.

Harris is stepping back after a 30-year career in public health. She’s been with Mecklenburg County for four years and spent the last two tirelessly tracking COVID-19 data and keeping elected officials and the community informed on what they needed to do to stay safe.

Harris said it herself, she has become a broken record over the last two years, pleading with the public to mask or get vaccinated to stay safe. She clearly cares so deeply about her work and the community, but the challenges have taken a toll.

“The thing rattles me is watching the numbers, and especially when we’re talking about really high numbers of people in the hospital and people dying,” she said. “The challenges that our long-term care facilities had with people who were most vulnerable, those were the sort of things that get to me.”

She said it’s those challenges that motivated her to work harder and to try to make the community a healthier, safer place. Harris knows she did not make everyone happy but that the community needs to work together to get out of the pandemic.

The pandemic made her put off retirement longer than she would have, and she’s been apart from her husband, daughter and grandchildren who live in Asheville. Walking away will not be easy for her, and she said she’ll still check in on the department from time to time. 

Despite COVID-19 cases rising, she knows now is the right time.

“I’ve had the luxury of having Raynard Washington with me for two years and we’ve had the ability over the last four years to build the infrastructure in the department and it’s a good time,” she said. “He’s ready to take on the leadership and move it to the next level and so I feel like I’m ready to let it go to him.”

Dr. Raynard Washington, the deputy health director, takes over as health director in January 2022.

At her last county commissioner's meeting on Tuesday, Harris was honored with the order of the Long Leaf Pine from Gov. Roy Cooper. It’s the highest state honor given to North Carolinians who have made significant contributions to the state.

Contact Chloe Leshner at cleshner@wcnc.com and follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.