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Lee Norman steps down as Kansas health secretary after a high profile during the pandemic

Dr. Lee Norman's profile across Kansas began to grow early in the COVID-19 pandemic, partly from appearances like this at a news conference in March 2020.
Jim McLean
Kansas News Service
Dr. Lee Norman's profile across Kansas began to grow early in the COVID-19 pandemic, partly from appearances like this at a news conference in March 2020.

Dr. Lee Norman was the face of public health through the COVID-19 pandemic. That also made him a target of criticism from Republicans. He also faced internal tension with Gov. Laura Kelly's administration.

TOPEKA, Kansas — Dr. Lee Norman has stepped aside from his post as the state health secretary, after leading efforts in Kansas to control the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gov. Laura Kelly issued a news release on Friday announcing Norman’s departure, citing his “tireless efforts to fight this unprecedented pandemic” and calling him “the most consequential Secretary of Health and Environment in Kansas history.”

The announcement came shortly after the Kansas Reflector reported on emails that suggest tension between the governor’s staff and Norman stretching back several months.

The governor’s office wanted Norman to step down early this summer. That was before the delta variant brought another rapid surge of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations to the state.

Norman remained at the health agency’s helm during the surge, but stayed out of public view. That was a sharp contrast to earlier in the pandemic, when he updated the public weekly on the situation in news conferences often side-by-side with Kelly.

Norman declined a Kansas News Service request for comment on Friday, saying he needed time to recover from months of battling the pandemic and internal tension about his role in the administration.

The Reflector obtained emails that reveal the governor’s chief of staff, Will Lawrence, was frustrated with Norman and felt the secretary had repeatedly commented publicly about policy and political matters when it wasn’t his place to do so. Lawrence instructed Norman to stop speaking publicly.

Lawrence also believed Norman had undercut the Democratic governor in her own efforts to navigate tensions with the conservative Republicans who run the Legislature so that she could secure an extended emergency declaration, the Reflector reported.

Ashley Goss, the deputy secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, will serve as interim state health secretary.

Kelly tapped Norman — a former chief medical officer for the University of Kansas Health System — as the health secretary in early 2019. Norman had also served as a colonel in the Kansas Army National Guard overseeing a medical unit.

As the pandemic unfolded in 2020, Norman became sort of a Kansas version of Anthony Fauci, a physician talking medicine to people in the state and appearing on national news. He urged social distancing and mask-wearing, and vaccinations, once those became available.

Over the months, he and other state health officials faced criticism from Republican lawmakers who questioned the seriousness of the pandemic or opposed certain state measures to control it.

Kelly was the first governor in the country to end in-person school through the spring semester of 2020, and she ordered a wide range of businesses to close their doors to the public amid the first Kansas surge of the virus.

That led to the Legislature weakening some of the governor’s powers, and Norman fielded some of the heat on those issues.

Jim McLean is the senior correspondent for the Kansas News Service. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks or email jim (at) kcur (dot) org.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen reports on consumer health for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @celia_LJ or email her at celia (at) kcur (dot) org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Copyright 2021 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Celia comes to the Kansas News Service after five years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. She brings in-depth experience covering schools and education policy in Kansas as well as news at the Statehouse. In the last year she has been diving into data reporting. At the Kansas News Service she will also be producing more radio, a medium she’s been yearning to return to since graduating from Columbia University with a master’s in journalism.
Jim McLean is an editor and reporter for KCUR 89.3. He is the managing director of KCUR's Kansas News Service, a collaboration between KCUR and other public media stations across Kansas.