Risking the credibility essential to their work, county health officials publicly gave their blessing last month to local universities’ plans to reopen amidst the pandemic — while at the same time privately expressing worry about some of those plans.
“Their plans are good,” Gibbie Harris, the director of Mecklenburg County’s health department, said at an August 12 press conference. “The plans that our colleges have in place are good plans.”
Harris spoke in particular about the planned reopening of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where campus dorms were at that time slated to open in late August and in-person classes were to begin on September 7.
“The decisions have already been made for these students to come back, so we just need to make sure we’re doing what we can to support them in that and to make sure the students and the faculty and the community are safe,” she said. The university’s “good” plans, Harris suggested at the press conference, would do just that.
But around the same time she made this reassuring public assessment, Harris and other local health officials privately expressed “significant concerns” about UNCC’s reopening plans, according to internal county emails.
Harris privately communicated her concerns to UNCC officials last month, who then decided to delay the start of in-person classes until October 1.
One series of emails regarding COVID-19 and UNCC arose as a result of the actions of public health officials in Orange County, home of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
On August 6, Commissioner Susan Harden emailed Harris and County Manager Dena Diorio to ask about a memorandum from the Orange County health director objecting to the university’s planned reopening. “What can we learn from what Chapel Hill is experiencing to be proactive in our community?” Commissioner Harden asked. Diorio forwarded the email to UNCC officials.
In response, UNCC Chancellor Sharon Gaber asked for a chance to “to get together (virtually) and brief you.” The emails appear to schedule a conversation but do not reflect its results or contents.
One thing is certain: Neither Mecklenburg County nor UNCC officials meaningfully discussed in public whether and to what degree they shared the views of the Orange County health director.
For example, at an August 10 virtual “town hall” that UNCC held to discuss COVID-19 and its effect on the school’s reopening, the Orange County memo went unmentioned.
The same day local officials were arranging to discuss the Orange County memo, Diorio passed along to Harris UNCC’s “The New Norm” campaign, a COVID-related public relations effort crafted by the school.
Harris seemed unimpressed. “Nice but just a campaign,” she wrote back to Diorio. “I am requesting a copy their plan now.”
Just minutes after emailing Diorio, Harris emailed Richard Tankersley, UNCC’s vice chancellor for research and economic development. “I assume you have seen some of the emails re[garding] concerns about the UNC system opening,” she wrote. “We are wanting to be as supportive as we can be. It would b[e] much easier if we could review your plans for reopening. Do you have something you could share?”
On August 13, Harris wrote that she was still awaiting UNCC’s plans.
Then, on August 14, Kim Bradley, Chancellor Gaber’s chief of staff, emailed Harris “a working document” of the university’s plans.
This email was sent two days after the August 12 press conference at which Harris gave her blessing to the reopening plans of area schools, including UNCC.
This means that when Harris said at the press conference that the reopening plans of local schools were “good,” she was expressing approval of at least one plan she had not seen.
Once Harris and other county officials had a chance to review the university’s plans, their private reactions continued to differ from their public assessments.
On August 16, Meg Sullivan, the health department’s medical director, wrote to Harris that UNCC’s plan regarding athletics was “pretty vague.” She said she also had concerns about “on-campus housing, isolation/quarantine plans, common areas, clarification re: mask/face coverings requirement, and status of recreational facilities.”
Harris replied, “Consistent with my thoughts. Don’t know if you have seen the issues that Chapel Hill has already had with clusters — 2 dorms and on campus Frat house.”
On August 17, Betty Doster, who serves as Chancellor Gaber’s special assistant for constituent relations, emailed updated plans to Dioro and Harris.
That same day, Harris intentionally gave a “vague answer” to WSOC reporter Tina Terry in response to a specific question about whether, in light of outbreaks at UNC-Chapel Hill, UNCC should delay the start of in-person instruction. “Not going to get into specifics with her,” Harris wrote to Rebecca Carter, a county spokeswoman.
Nowhere in Harris’s “vague answer” did she share any of the concerns she and her colleagues were expressing in private. Rather, her response merely said the county “continues to work with UNC Charlotte as they develop and modify their plans to bring students safely back to campus in early September.”
It’s not clear from the emails whether Carter forwarded the response to Terry, but Harris later made a similar statement at a meeting of county commissioners.
In the early morning hours of August 18, Harris emailed Sullivan and Raynard Washington, the health department’s deputy director, stating that she planned to respond to Doster to “share concerns about the housing situation on and off campus.” She also stated her intention to relay some concerns regarding athletics.
Within an hour, Sullivan wrote back, “I do think a quick response expressing significant concerns with their current plans and requesting a call to discuss makes sense.”
This was nearly a week after Harris publicly praised UNCC’s plans at the August 12 press conference.
Later on the morning of August 18, Harris emailed Doster: “I do appreciate the intent but I do have some concerns at this point.” She added, “I and my staff have reviewed the documents that you have shared. We do have more concerns and questions about the plans in those documents.”
In her email to Doster, Harris requested a call with UNCC officials to discuss these matters. Doster replied within minutes to say she would set it up.
Immediately after sending the email to Doster, Harris forwarded it to Sullivan and Washington. “Sent this just now. Had to sleep on it,” she wrote.
It’s not clear from the emails if the call between county and university representatives occurred or what specific concerns were shared with UNCC officials, but when asked this week for copies of the response contemplated by Harris’s and Sullivan’s emails, Harris said the response was provided to UNCC exclusively via conversation.
“Those responses were part of the discussions with UNCC that resulted in changes to their plans. There is no documentation of that guidance,” she wrote.
It seems incredible that amidst a deadly pandemic, public health officials would provide UNCC merely verbal feedback without committing to writing any warnings, instructions, guidance, or suggestions.
If true, the seemingly deliberate decision to avoid the creation of a paper trail — such as the health director’s memo in Orange County regarding UNC-Chapel Hill that caused such an uproar — leaves the impression of an attempt to serve the needs not of public health, but public relations.
Following the county’s verbal response to its plans, UNCC announced it was postponing the start of in-person instruction and delaying students’ return to on-campus living and dining.
Carter, the county spokeswoman, said this week that after public health officials provided their strictly verbal response to UNCC’s reopening plans, the university amended those plans, though Carter added that the county does not currently possess any copies of the plans.
“We worked through the plans with UNCC in meetings and conversations, providing guidance and are now satisfied with the plans,” she said.
Of course, the county’s top health official publicly said the same thing last month — that the university’s plans were “good” — while expressing the opposite sentiment in private.
We’re left wondering whether to believe today’s statements from the very officials that we now know deceived us yesterday.