Dr. Lee Norman led Kansas through the first year and a half of the COVID-19 pandemic. But Governor Laura Kelly replaced him this week with Janet Stanek, a longtime hospital administrator. Jim McLean, of the Kansas News Service, recently spoke to Norman about his firing and the lessons he learned during the pandemic.
By Jim McLean, Kansas Public Radio and the Kansas News Service
The job of guiding Kansas through a generation-defining public health crisis for nearly two years fell to Dr. Lee Norman. Until recently, and suddenly, it didn’t. Democratic Governor Laura Kelly recently fired him as secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment after months of reducing his role as the face of the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. She then quickly replaced him with Janet Stanek, a longtime hospital administrator who’s worked for the past 21 years at Stormont-Vail Health in Topeka. Stanek will take the helm of the agency on Monday.
During the first several months of the outbreak, Norman, dressed in a white lab coat, was at Kelly’s side at widely broadcast briefings. That stopped in early summer, when Will Lawrence, the governor’s chief of staff, became concerned that Norman’s blunt style further strained relations between Kelly and Republican legislative leaders. Emails obtained by the Kansas Reflector revealed that Lawrence ordered Norman to the sidelines.
On November 19, Kelly announced that Norman was “stepping down.” But a few days later in an interview with the Kansas News Service, Norman disputed that. His interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: Were you fired?
Norman: I was asked to step down. I’m relatively new to state government. But I understand that when you work for the governor, it’s at the pleasure of the governor. That means when you’re asked to step down, you step down.
Q: To What extent did that tension between the governor and the Legislature affect the state’s pandemic response?
Norman: The divisiveness … really interfered with it. It was (like) sticking a stick into the spokes of a bicycle. There are many states where there hasn’t been this kind of conflict. Red states are more likely to have these kinds of squabbles. It’s especially true if the governor and legislature come from different sides of the aisle.
Q: Why did things get so political?
Norman: The shameful treatment in the Trump administration of public health leaders, I think, set the stage for having the same thing happen at the state level. (Anthony) Fauci was Faucied. And to be honest with you, I think I was Fauci'd.
Q: Lots of public health workers, particularly at the county level, quit because of conflicts with the public and county commissioners. Others were fired. How much of a toll has the pandemic taken on the state’s public health workforce?
Norman: The brain drain out of public health puts us in peril going forward. There’s no question about that. In the state of Kansas, out of 105 counties, 48 counties have lost either their public health department administrator and/or their county health officers.
Q: Most Kansans are vaccinated against COVID-19 but many still are not. Is there any reason to question the safety of the vaccines and what concerns you if large numbers of people continue to refuse to get the shot?
Norman: The vaccines are safe. One of the counter-narratives that natural immunity is better than vaccine-driven immunity is simply not true. The longer we have non-immune individuals roaming the Earth, the more variants we are going to see emerge.
Q: Looking back, do you have any regrets about your tenure as health secretary?
Norman: I’m very proud of the work that I and my team did; about 700 days of almost continuous work. But I think I learned a lesson. As much as I love a good argument, social media is not the place to do that (with legislators). Regrets otherwise, no.”
Jim McLean is the Statehouse Bureau Chief for Kansas Public Radio and the senior correspondent for the Kansas News Service. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of Kansas Public Radio, KCUR, 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.