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Mecklenburg’s interim health director says she wants to be inclusive, forward looking

Harris, 65, was hired under a six-month contract after the forced resignation of Dr. Marcus Plescia, the county’s outgoing health director.

Alma “Gibbie” Harris (Photo: Courtesy of Mecklenburg County)

A month before she officially takes over as Mecklenburg County’s interim health directory, Alma “Gibbie” Harris said she is focused on fixing what’s broken in the county’s health department – including reports of low morale among staff.

“I’m excited about the opportunity,” she told Qcitymetro on Thursday. “I think there is real opportunity to move in a positive direction in this department, and I hope that the community as well as the staff will support that process.”

Harris, 65, was hired under a six-month contract following the forced resignation of Dr. Marcus Plescia, the county’s outgoing health director. On Monday, Harris began working inside the department alongside Plescia, whose tenure officially extends through Aug. 4.

Plescia resigned June 6 amid growing criticism relating to his leadership at the health department. In particular, he has been hammered by news reports of procedural lapses relating to health department clinics and swimming pool inspections.

On Thursday, the Charlotte Observer, using health department emails obtained though a public records request, reported that problems within the county’s health clinics may be “much worse” than the public was told.

“…it includes poor performing employees, bad supervision, bad data management, bad clinical procedures, bad initial assessment of the problem, bad triage and incomplete corrective actions,” county nurse Julie Secrest wrote in a Feb. 2 email, according to the Observer. “Patient care has been poor at best, and at worst, patients health and safety has been at risk. After reviewing the information that I have seen, I believe bad patient outcomes are inevitable and/or have occurred in some cases.”

Harris, a former Wake and Buncombe County health director, had been bought in as a consultant under Plescia to recommend management changes. It may now fall to her to implement some of the same fixes her firm is expected to outline in its upcoming report, for which her firm was paid $25,000. (A second consultant was hired to examine procedures at the department’s embattled health clinics.)

Harris said she is committed to public health and the good it can do in communities.

“As I do that, I like to have fun in my work,” she said. “Work needs to be fun. It’s not going to be every day all day, but I want people to enjoy their work and to feel fulfillment out of that, and I like the same things.”

She also said she will be open to listening and suggestions.

Here is a Q&A based on some of the things we talked about:

Q. What will be your priorities as interim director?

Actually, they are multi-layered. I am concerned about patients that the health department may have seen in the past that have not had the followup they need. So we’re doing what we can to identify them and do that followup and get them into the care that they need. But I’m also really focused on how we move the department forward to improve the care that we provide and prevent issues like that from happening again. And part of that is working with staff to make sure that our procedures and practices are in place and that we are using best practices. But also, I think, in rebuilding the morale of the staff as well as the trust of the community.

Q. Let’s talk about the staff morale. There were reports long before Dr. Plescia announced his resignation that morale within the department was low. How would you describe it?

This is my fourth day, so I have not had the opportunity to meet directly with a lot of the staff, but there are concerns. All of the messages about the health department have been very negative. It’s hard for staff to hear that. Granted, there are reasons for it. We understand that. But at the same time we have a great group of people here with a lot of years of experience and expertise and a lot of passion for caring for their patients and for the community, and that’s getting lost in this. So it’s just hard to hear constant negative comments about their work, so that just presents a morale issue that we’ve got to work on. I’m hoping to help the staff become and stay engaged in the solutions moving forward.

Q. One of the complaints we’ve heard is about inclusion — who’s at the table, the racial and gender makeup of who’s at the table. How do you intend to address those concerns?

As part of our assessment process, we’ve done a preliminary look at that. There’s much more that I need to understand about the inner workings of the department. There is always room for improvement, and I do believe there are issues that need to be addressed. I’m not fully aware of what all of those may be. I want to hear from staff. I’ll be taking time over the next month or so to hear from staff, hear their concerns and to look and work with both leadership and front-line staff on figuring out how to address those issues. This is an ongoing process, and it’s not going to be a quick fix.

Q. If I’m a staffer who feels that I’ve been left out or that my voice has not been heard, or that people who look like me have been excluded, why should I believe that you’re going to change that?

All I can do is ask them to give me a chance. I was in Raleigh for 19 years, working with a very diverse community and a very diverse workforce. We worked actively on these issues, and I think we made some strides in the right direction. And so I’m hoping the staff will at least give me a chance to work with them on these issues. I can’t fix this. It’s going to have to be a concerted effort on everybody’s part. And that means everybody is going to have to be willing to come to the table and be open and honest and solutions-based. And that’s what I’m hoping for.

Q. As a leader, what do you feel passionately about?

I’m a team player. I can make tough decisions when I have to be, but I love to get input and involvement of others in those decisions. And I like leading by example, so hopefully, that’s what I will continue to do here.

Q.What did your Wake County leadership team look like?

Actually, my leadership team was quite diverse. Leadership was about six people. The majority were minority. I think there were two Caucasians on the group, and the rest were Latino and African American.

Q. What should taxpayers make of what’s happening at the health department?

That’s a difficult question for me. That’s probably a question for the county manager. Again, I am learning the community. I am learning what the issues are here, and I still have lots to learn. Every taxpayer in every community has the right to expect the best possible service from their local health department, and that’s what I’m going to be focused on.

Q. Will you be putting your hat into the ring to be named permanent director?

I have not given that any thought at this point. I’m just focused on the work right now and what’s ahead of me the next six months, so I can’t answer that.

Q. Your firm’s recommendations relating to the administrative side of the health department have not been issued yet. Can you in any way characterize what you have found?

I think what I would say is that there are lots of positives about this organization, and there is also lots of room for improvement. That’s probably as much as I can say at this point. We’ll be making some recommendations that we think can help move the organization forward.

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