A local gay rights group on Tuesday demanded an apology from Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio and new Health Director Gibbie Harris, who they accused of fueling outdated stereotypes about people who contract HIV.
MeckPAC said Harris undercut HIV prevention efforts when she recently said that Charlotte is a “party town” and that is a major reason the county has one of the highest new infection rates in the country. The group blasted Diorio for defending Harris’ remarks.
“They have pushed a dangerous, stigmatizing narrative straight out of the 1980s,” MeckPAC said in a written statement.
The criticism comes one day after the executive director of the NC AIDS Action Network, a leading state organization, sent a tweet calling for Harris to apologize.
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“Judgement and stigma have no place in preventing HIV transmissions,” Lee Storrow wrote.
Harris’ comments during a lightly attended county Board of Commissioners meeting in October initially drew little public notice, but reaction has grown since some Health Department employees learned about them.
A county spokesman said officials had not learned about MeckPAC’s demand until late Tuesday afternoon and were still reviewing the statement.
Mecklenburg’s HIV infection rate is 30.4 per 100,000 people, more than twice the national average.
Nationally, more than half of all new HIV cases occur in the South. For years, researchers have cited reasons such as poverty, lack of health insurance, homophobia and social stigmas about the disease.
At an Oct. 24 commissioners meeting, some officials questioned why Mecklenburg has high rates.
Harris blamed drug addiction and demographics, but also added that tourists visiting Charlotte spread the virus.
“In cities like Charlotte, which draws a lot of people in, it can be a party town,” Harris said. “It can be a place where people come in, enjoy themselves for the weekend and then leave but leave stuff behind.”
In response to questions from the Observer, Diorio said: “Gibbie was referring to events in large metropolitan areas that attract crowds of residents and visitors where higher-risk behavior could occur. She has direct knowledge of these in Wake County and along the east coast, and has heard anecdotaly that they also occur in Mecklenburg County. Public Health will continue working with residents and visitors to encourage them to protect themselves and others.”
MeckPAC criticized Diorio for citing “anecdotal” evidence instead of scientific research.
Diorio’s response included “blatantly coded language” and was “astonishingly glib,” the group said.
Clasen-Kelly: 704-358-5027; @fred_ckelly