Lee Norman steps down from Gov. Laura Kelly's administration after leading KDHE through COVID pandemic
Secretary Lee Norman has stepped down from Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly's administration after leading the Kansas Department of Health and Environment through the coronavirus pandemic.
In a statement released Friday by the governor's office, Norman thanked Kelly for the "privilege of serving the people of Kansas" and said he was proud of all KDHE staff members.
"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 said. "While leaving was not an easy decision, I have no doubt that the leadership will maintain a seamless continuity of operations as the agency continues its transition from crisis response to steady state."
Deputy Secretary Ashley Goss will serve as acting secretary until a permanent candidate is appointed. Ximena Garcia will serve as the acting state health officer and Medicaid medical director. Garcia is a senior adviser to the governor on COVID-19 vaccine equity.
The news release gave no reason for Norman's departure, but the Kansas Reflector reported the news has been brewing for months and came after a dispute between the secretary and Kelly's chief-of-staff Will Lawrence over Norman's media appearances.
Lee Norman less visible of late
Norman has been less visible in recent months, conducting relatively few media appearances and was noticeably absent during Kelly's public appearances on the delta variant surge in the summer and fall months.
Norman didn't return a phone call seeking comment Friday.
Kelly, in a news release, thanked Norman for his service "and particularly for his leadership and his tireless efforts to fight this unprecedented pandemic."
"From the first confirmed case until today, Dr. Norman has played a vital role within this administration to provide guidance and help steer our state’s response to the virus," Kelly said. "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."
Norman had been the KDHE secretary since Kelly took office in 2019. He led the COVID-19 response and oversaw the agency's divisions on health, environment and health finance.
Before joining the Kelly administration, Norman was a family physician, flight surgeon and combat medicine instructor in the U.S. Air Force, and spent time as the chief medical officer of two different hospital systems.
The news comes after Marci Nielsen, Kelly's chief adviser for COVID-19 coordination, announced she would be leaving her post in December to return to her work in Washington, D.C.
Lee Norman sometimes clashed with Republican legislators
Norman's wit, folksy demeanor and medical background made him a highly visible figure in the Kelly administration, with his presence during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic almost eclipsing that of the governor herself.
This didn't prevent clashes with Republican legislators, however.
That included a clash over whether Norman misled the public with data presented at a news conference on COVID-19, something the secretary denied.
Lawmakers also took KDHE to task for what they viewed as a slow rollout of COVID-19 vaccines statewide, with the agency pointing to data snafus and supply chain issues making the situation seem worse than it actually was.
Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, R-Galena, and chair of the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee, said he wished Norman well in his future endeavors.
"I am hopeful that the governor will move KDHE in a different, more positive direction for the state of Kansas ... one that understands that they are not the dictator of policy but is willing to work with lawmakers as well as the governor and everybody else in doing what is best for Kansas as a whole," Hilderbrand said.
A February report from Kaiser Health News and the Associated Press found that 38 high-level state health officials have left their positions since April. At the county level, more than half of Kansas local health department leaders have stepped down since the beginning of the pandemic.
Jason Tidd and Andrew Bahl are statehouse reporters for the Topeka Capital-Journal. They can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.