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 Nov. 19 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 Nov. 19, 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.