© 2021 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
News

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

Dr. Lee Norman behind microphones at a press conference.
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.

KCUR serves the Kansas City region with essential news and information.
Your donation today keeps local journalism strong.