Lee Norman steps down as Kansas health secretary, months after internal dispute

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TOPEKA — Lee Norman stepped down Thursday from his high-profile cabinet post as the chief medical officer in Kansas, where he managed the state’s response to COVID-19 throughout the pandemic.

His departure from Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration follows months of conversations between Norman and her office about whether it was time for him to leave state government. Norman retreated from public view in June following a tense exchange with the governor’s chief of staff, who wanted Norman to stay in his lane and avoid sensitive political issues when speaking to news reporters.

As secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, Norman stood alongside the governor during frequent news briefings early in the pandemic to deliver updates on the spread of the novel coronavirus and a desperate scramble to secure personal protective equipment. He championed the science behind recommendations for wearing a mask and social distancing.

“From the first confirmed case until today, Dr. Norman has played vital role within this administration to provide guidance and help steer our state’s response to the virus,” Kelly said in a statement Friday. “His and his team’s work to keep Kansans safe during this once-in-a-century public health crisis has cemented his place as the most consequential secretary of health and environment in Kansas history.”

Deputy KDHE secretary Ashley Goss will serve as interim secretary in Norman’s absence. Ximena Garcia, a physician who has advised the governor on vaccine equity, will serve as acting state health officer and Medicaid medical director. Marci Nielsen also announced Thursday she was stepping down as chief COVID-19 adviser to the governor, effective Dec. 3.

Kelly is expected to name a new candidate for health secretary in the coming weeks, ahead of the start of the regular session in January.

“I want to thank Governor Kelly for the privilege of serving the people of Kansas during this unique, challenging, and important moment in our state’s history,” Norman said. “I could not be more proud of each and every staff member at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. For the last two years they have gone above and beyond facing unimaginable circumstances to create and execute the framework of the Kansas COVID-19 response strategy.”

Norman had served as KDHE secretary since Kelly took office in 2019. Previously, he was the chief medical officer for the University of Kansas Health System, and his experience included dealing with the Ebola virus in 2014 and H1N1 in 2009. He also had deployed to the Middle East as a colonel in the Kansas Army National Guard and served as senior medical commander to more than 12,000 soldiers.

As health secretary, he appeared at news conferences in a white coat, briefly gaining national attention at the start of the pandemic for his resemblance to Col. Sanders. His response: “No finger-lickin’!”

The GOP-led Legislature leaned on Norman for public health guidance in the days after the virus was detected in Kansas in March 2020. Within weeks, Republicans soured on him — in part because of pointed comments Norman made about lawmakers in late-night tweets. The governor’s office at one point took away Norman’s control of his Twitter account and later told him to refuse national media requests.

Kansas Reflector learned of Norman’s departure as part of an inquiry into internal communications between Norman and Will Lawrence, the governor’s chief of staff.

The governor’s office began talking with Norman in June about whether he should step down as KDHE secretary. Those talks were delayed by the rapid spread of the delta variant, but Norman remained absent from the public spotlight, even as COVID-19 case numbers began to multiply in July and August. During those months, KDHE issued as many news releases about algae blooms in Kansas lakes as it did about the delta variant.

On July 28, Kansas Reflector filed a request under the Kansas Open Records Act for emails between Norman and Lawrence. Those emails were provided at 4 p.m. Thursday, an hour before Norman’s departure became official.

The emails reveal Lawrence ordered Norman to stop speaking publicly in early June, at a time when the governor’s office was trying to persuade Republican lawmakers to extend the emergency declaration for COVID-19. The declaration allowed the Kansas National Guard and other agencies to assist in the operations of managing the pandemic.

Norman undermined efforts to extend the emergency, Lawrence believed, by speaking out of turn during a University of Kansas Health System news briefing. KU Health has conducted daily briefings throughout the pandemic, inviting numerous guests. Norman appeared regularly.

During a June 9 briefing, Norman said the virus wouldn’t magically go away if the Legislature were to let the emergency declaration expire June 15. He also said federal aid wouldn’t go away, that nursing home staff should be vaccinated and that public school boards should require masks in classrooms when students return in the fall. The Wichita Eagle reported on his comments.

Lawrence told Norman in a June 10 email that his statements “clearly undercut” the effort to secure a 30-day extension of the emergency declaration. This was not the first time the governor’s office had concerns about Norman’s comments during the KU Health briefings.

“I have no choice at this point but to request that you do not participate in any further KU morning updates or other media inquiries without them (being) cleared with clear talking points and approved messaging from my office,” Lawrence said.

Norman said he could “absolutely quit doing the updates” if they cause concern.

“Please do,” Lawrence said. “That is my request at this point.”

Lawrence repeated a directive he frequently had given Norman: Stay in your lane and decline to answer policy questions.

The next day, Norman vented his concerns to Lawrence.

“I think our communications to the public are often too late and incomplete for fear of political ramifications, and I think yesterday’s conversation about the emergency declaration illustrates it perfectly,” Norman said. “By not saying anything publicly about what this really means … people flounder around and look for other, less-reliable sources. And somebody will fill in the information gap with errant information, believe me.”

Norman provided examples of the questions his agency had received about the expiration of the emergency declaration. Is it safe to put money down on a child’s summer camp? No more masks in day care? Can state-licensed long-term care facilities stop testing?

“I think we can and should do better in, in an anticipatory manner, providing public health guidance to the public,” Norman said. “I think we essentially embargo those discussions too long.”

Lawrence told Norman he agreed with the need to push out information before less credible sources weighed in. But the point, Lawrence stressed, is that the governor’s office should vet any public message about the emergency declaration because the declaration is under the governor’s authority.

“It was not your decision to make,” Lawrence said. “But you did it anyways and did so publicly and caught us completely by surprise.”

Norman’s comments, Lawrence said, would give Republican leaders “every justification” to vote against the extension of the emergency declaration.

“We absolutely need this extension,” Lawrence said. “KDHE is not ready to handle the ongoing operations in four days from now.”

Norman vowed there would be “no more missteps.”

GOP leaders on the Legislative Coordinating Council were expected to consider an extension on June 15. Instead, the LCC chose not to meet, allowing the declaration to expire.

In response, Norman asked the governor’s office to let the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services issue a statewide health order to continue testing in state-licensed long-term care facilities.

“I would prefer KDADS do this, and they do have the authority,” Norman said in an email to Lawrence and others. “I hate to call attention to my public health authorities if I don’t have to — doing so would be one more easy target for next session to go after.”

Later that month, Norman raised concerns when the governor’s office issued a June 29 news release alerting residents to the threat of the delta variant ahead of the July 4 holiday weekend.

“Maybe I’m just paranoid these days,” Norman wrote to Lawrence, “but I find it interesting that no real clinicians or public health professionals were involved with this, or the interviews to follow.”

Actually, Lawrence said, multiple employees from KDHE were consulted in the process, as well as Garcia, the vaccine equity adviser to the governor, and Nielsen, the governor’s chief COVID-19 adviser.

“The origin of my concern is that neither Marci nor Dr. Garcia … represent KHDE in terms of scientific, clinical, or public health content and expertise, and it worries me that they would be considered as such,” Norman said.

Regardless of whether Garcia and Nielsen represent KDHE, Lawrence said, they are both health professionals hired by the governor to advise on COVID-19 issues.

As Norman retreated from public view, the governor’s office embraced a multi-faceted strategy to inform residents of the threat of the delta variant and the importance of getting vaccinated. Norman continued to issue statements through news releases vetted by the governor’s office, including advice he gave on his final day in office about holiday travel.

Nielsen and KDHE deputies conducted interviews with news reporters throughout July. A Facebook audit praised the governor for posting about the pandemic 26 times between June 1 and July 9. In September, Nielsen began leading weekly public meetings of the Safer Classrooms Workgroup, a team of medical professionals and school officials who provide updates on outbreaks and mitigation strategies.

The governor’s office spent $24,000 on a 30-second ad about holiday safety leading up to July 4, and another $475,000 on ads between June 27 and Sept. 10 featuring celebrities promoting positive outcomes of vaccination.

From Aug. 3 to mid-November, the governor’s office spent more than $10 million on TV, radio, digital and print ads that encourage residents to get vaccinated, sometimes targeting Latino or Black residents. That includes $1.19 million for a back-to-school campaign that launched Aug. 20.

Another campaign featured testimonials from Kansas physicians and residents who shared stories about how the virus affected their lives. The $4.7 million worth of ads targeted counties with low vaccination rates between Sept. 23 and Nov. 15.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 54.1% of Kansans are vaccinated, including 66.4% of adults. From July 1 to Nov. 17, Kansas recorded 1,414 deaths from COVID-19. The virus has killed 6,634 Kansans since the start of the pandemic.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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