Health director apologies for saying HIV rates high because Charlotte’s a ‘party town’

"Words matter. I apologize to those I offended."

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Mecklenburg County Health Director Gibbie Harris has apologized for putting part of the blame for Charlotte’s high HIV rate on it being a “party town.” 

Harris made the comments last month during a presentation to the Mecklenburg County Commissioners concerning Charlotte’s rate of over 30.4 new HIV diagnoses per 100,000 people, more than twice the national average. It also ranks highest in the state.

“Part of it is location,” Harris said, after also citing the county’s size and the opioid epidemic. “In cities like Charlotte, that draws a lot of people in, it can be a party town. It can be a place where people come in, enjoy themselves for the weekend, and then leave but leave stuff behind.”

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LGBTQ advocates called the comments outdated and harmful, and health experts noted the true causes of high HIV, and other STD, rates are issues like poverty, lack of access to proper health care and stigma.

The NC AIDS Action Network, MeckPAC and others called on Harris to issue an apology. MeckPAC has also called on Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio, who hired Harris, to apologize for her defense of Harris’s comments.

Harris issues apology

“My recent use of the term ‘party town’ was never intended to stigmatize anyone or to cause harm to people living with HIV. Words matter. I apologize to those I offended,” Harris said in a statement posted to the Mecklenburg County government website.

“There are many things that influence HIV and we have much work to do to adequately and appropriately prevent and treat HIV in Mecklenburg County. I hope that we, as a community, can focus on action going forward.”

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Moving forward

“Earlier this week, NC AIDS Action Network and other advocates called on the Mecklenburg Health Director to apologize for stigmatizing comments made about HIV. We’re thankful that she heard that message, and issued an apology today,” NC AIDS Action Network wrote on Facebook.

“We agree with Gibbie Harris that we ‘have much work to do to adequately and appropriately prevent and treat HIV in Mecklenburg County.’ Let’s continue the conversation and keep moving forward!”

MeckPAC is calling on Mecklenburg County to begin advocating for PrEP as a part of its tools to combat the disease. PrEP is a once daily pill that can be taken by people who are HIV negative in order to help prevent them from contracting the illness. 

“MeckPAC has been working this year to form a new effort, PrEPinMeck. Our effort will launch on Dec. 1, to coincide with World AIDS Day, and aims to remind Mecklenburg County officials of their commitment to stop all new HIV infections in Mecklenburg County by 2020,” it said. “We’ll focus on public education, lobbying and a push to see county resources extended to support this critically important prevention method.”

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Posted by Jeff Taylor / Social Media Editor

Jeff Taylor is a journalist and artist. In addition to QNotes, his work has appeared in publications such The Charlotte Observer, Creative Loafing Charlotte, Inside Lacrosse, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. He graduated from the State University of New York at Brockport and has lived in Charlotte since 2006.@jefftaylorhuman.