Dr. Lee Norman voices no regrets in discussing departure from KDHE

Former KDHE Secretary Dr. Lee Norman discusses his departure in an interview with 13 NEWS, Nov....
Former KDHE Secretary Dr. Lee Norman discusses his departure in an interview with 13 NEWS, Nov. 23, 20201.
Published: Nov. 23, 2021 at 7:05 PM CST
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TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - Dr. Lee Norman believes we cannot let down our guard against COVID-19, and he wishes he was still part of the state’s effort to fight through the next phase of the pandemic.

Norman’s three-year tenure as secretary of the Kansas Dept. of Health and Environment secretary came to an abrupt end Friday, with a news release from Gov. Laura Kelly announcing his departure.

“I did not step down voluntarily. I was asked to step down,” Norman told 13 NEWS in an interview Tuesday. “I feel really good about what we’ve accomplished as a state, as an agency, myself personally. I’m not having a hard time sleeping at night.”

Norman says he does not know what ultimately led to the timing of his departure, but he acknowledged email exchanges with Gov. Kelly’s Chief of Staff Will Lawrence. First reported by the Kansas Reflector, the emails contain messages in which Lawrence warned Norman his public comments could be undermining the administration’s policy efforts, and scaled back Norman’s media appearances. Norman says he didn’t think he was getting political.

“It is true that public health is political but it shouldn’t be as partisan as it has become,” Norman said. “But - no confusion about this - I respect (Lawrence). I liked working with him and the rest of the Governor’s office staff.”

Norman said the nature of running a large, multi-faceted organization will inevitably have procedures running up against policy from time to time.

“When you’re busy running day-to-day operations in the middle of the largest infectious disease mass casualty event in the history of the United States - just to put things in perspective - running day to day operations when it gets into policy, then...you get a little push back. And that’s what you saw,” he said.

Norman said he believes he and the Governor’s office simply had a “fundamental difference of opinion” on how much information to release, and when to release it.

“I wanted to be more transparent with any information we have, trusting the public to take that information and do what they wish with it. I think the governor’s office wanted to script it a little more tightly than that and I think it worried them that I was going to divulge information that were just not quite ready to have divulged yet,” he said. “I feel the need to provide more information so that the policies and everything we do make sense, because otherwise it’s kind of a vacuum. Where did that policy come from?”

Norman also was known for calling out misinformation and public officials on social media. One recent example came earlier in the month, when House Speaker Ron Ryckman posted a tweet, condemning comments made in a legislative committee hearing that compared restrictions for the unvaccinated to the Holocaust. Norman replied, “It does make me wonder who allows for and encourages these venues for such reprehensible behaviors to occur. Need they?”

“I’ve basically always said what I’ve wanted to say,” Norman said. “You know, the words that come out of my mouth are my words. Now, if they have a consequence I can’t foresee and someone gets bruised, sorry - but I think it’s important to really state what’s on one’s mind.”

The information he wants people to know today is that the pandemic isn’t over.

“We can’t let our guard down during these upcoming weeks,” he said. “Really, from now until the first of the year I think are going to be a big question mark.”

Even with his departure, Norman said he fully supports Gov. Kelly and her administration’s efforts.

“Matter of fact, I think that her response to this pandemic has been a model of success. Her management has been superb,” he said.

As for his role in that response, Norman says he has no regrets.

“I’m not a victim. I might be a casualty of what’s happened. I don’t second guess how I’ve gotten here,” he said. “If I would have been on the sidelines, I would have been fit to be tied. You know, put me in, coach! I would not have wanted to sit on the sidelines.”

Norman isn’t sure what’s next, although he does not want to retire. He remains a colonel in the U.S. Army, and he is still on the faculty of the University of Kansas School of Medicine.

13 NEWS has reached out to the Governor’s office several times since Friday for a response to Norman’s departure. They have not commented beyond the initial news release, thanking him for his service.

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