Puerto rico government

Former Kansas health secretary caught off guard by layoff, plans to continue fighting pandemic

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – As former Kansas Department of Health and Environment Secretary Lee Norman managed the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, he found himself at the center of a cultural battle between individual rights and the collective good.

Blind individualism does not work well during a pandemic, he says.

“The United States is a very individualistic nation – you know, square jaw in the north wind, I’m John Wayne, I can do whatever I want and you can’t stop me,” Norman said. “And I think it works pretty well until it doesn’t.”

Norman opened up about his handling of the pandemic and his break with the governor’s office during an interview in his Kansas City, Missouri loft for a recording for the Kansas Reflector podcast. He said he was caught off guard when he was fired in November, but that private dispute with the governor’s office over his public messages about the pandemic dated back to March.

The governor’s staff wanted a specific, scripted message about the state’s response to COVID-19. Norman said his style is to tell people what he knows today and correct it tomorrow if he gets more information.

As a result, Norman said: “I was sidelined from a communication point of view.” He thought they would overcome quarrels like a married couple. He did not speak directly to the governor about the conflict with his staff.

“The happy sound of disagreement – you come away with a better work product,” Norman said. “The governor, or the governor’s staff, felt different. This is how I ended up where I am today.

Norman had not anticipated his departure from the state government, but he was prepared for the possibility that a deadly new virus could cause a global pandemic long before many were familiar with the threat that has become known as the name of COVID-19.

As health secretary, Lee Norman wished to deliver a rhythm of information to the public “to avoid having a void which would be filled by trash information”. (Sherman Smith / Reflector Kansas)

Drinking from a fire hose

On December 7, 2019, Norman gave a presentation on modern epidemics to the Council of State Governments at a gathering in Puerto Rico of lawmakers from across the country.

He had led the University of Kansas health care system during the 2002-2004 SARS epidemic. In 2017, he was deployed to the Middle East as a Colonel in the Kansas Army National Guard and saw with his own eyes how quickly Fatal Respiratory Syndrome in the Middle East could spread.

The fifth slide of his presentation showed a scientist holding a bat and an article about a MERS and SARS-like virus that had been found in Myanmar. The disease would later become known as COVID-19.

“Even in this session,” Norman said, “there were a few lawmakers who said to me, ‘Aren’t you shaking the pot and making people nervous and fear-mongering? “

Norman said he had “a pretty good idea that this could be a problem.” While other states viewed COVID-19 as “no big deal,” it has set up an incident command center in Kansas and prepared for the worst.

But for months after the virus was first detected in Kansas in March 2020, the state’s response was hampered by shortages of personal protective equipment and testing capacity. Norman blamed the lack of federal leadership. The supplies from the National Strategic Stockpile were so obsolete that the rubber band no longer worked. He half-joked to staff that masks arriving from China wouldn’t even make good coffee filters.

The state has sought new solutions to a new coronavirus. Could they turn breast pumps into fans? It turned out they could. They looked for safe ways to reuse face coverings, which medical professionals did not like well.

“No matter what you say about UV light or sterilizing hydrogen peroxide masks, people look at a mask that has been on another face, and regardless of whether this process is working well. , is it just the aesthetic of what I really want to put on a mask that someone else has worn before? ”said Normand.

From Norman’s point of view, there was so much information it was like ‘drinking from a fire hose’. He had never seen “such a great thirst” for information. Everyone wanted to know, “What are we learning? What do we know? “

He realized that he had to provide “a rhythm to disseminate this information in order to avoid having a void filled with misinformation.”

Health Secretary Lee Norman and Governor Laura Kelly visit a vaccination clinic on March 15, 2021 in Topeka. Norman said he did not speak directly with the governor about the communication conflict with his staff. (Sherman Smith / Reflector Kansas)

He likes it messy

The peer-reviewed scientific research and data on face masks was clear.

Kansas counties that have passed orders requiring residents to wear face masks in public reported a drop in infections between early July and August. In predominantly rural counties that have refused to apply a basic public safety measure, cases have remained stable.

Norman produced a graph in August 2020 to demonstrate the effectiveness of the masks. The data was then reaffirmed in a study produced by the Centers for Disease Control and Information.

The graphic, which used a dual axis to present the desired visual effect, has been widely called misleading by curators, including an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal who falsely claimed that the state had “rigged the data”.

“It was absolutely correct, but it was not understood by some, and some did not want to understand it and wanted to discredit it – so they did,” Norman said. “It certainly wasn’t a deliberate attempt to mislead, and some people just don’t look at the graphics and understand what they mean. So, lesson learned.

The controversy over the graphic has become emblematic of the willingness of political agents to lie about the effectiveness of masks and vaccines, and the eagerness of some residents to believe those lies – even as infections, hospitalizations and deaths were piling up wave after wave. As of Friday, the KDHE had recorded 6,830 deaths and 486,109 infections from the disease.

Norman said that social media allows for easy and “intellectually lazy” information gathering. Research shows that people choose to read news, judging by the headlines, that support their opinions.

His approach: “I like it to be messy. I like that we have arguments about what the data shows? What is the proof? What should we do? “

At KDHE, he wanted his team to tell him to step back if they thought he had come to the wrong conclusion. He was like, “OK, let’s go back, talk about it and get the evidence. “

“That’s the problem with this misinformation – the people gushing out who have, I think, other reasons for doing it,” Norman said. “And they’re not at all open-minded.”

Kansas Department of Health and Environment Secretary Lee Norman sketches a graphic showing a resurgence in mid-summer infections in Kansas.  (Sherman Smith / Reflector Kansas)
Health Secretary Lee Norman sketches a graphic showing a resurgence in midsummer infections in Kansas during an August 2020 interview for a podcast in Kansas Reflector’s office in Topeka. (Sherman Smith / Reflector Kansas)

The third trimester

Norman wants someone to be remembered who people can trust to provide quality information, who has a heart in the right place and who is willing to give “more than a pound of flesh” to them. Kansas residents.

He has no plans to retire at 69.

“I have way too much energy and I have a lot of enthusiasm for this pandemic,” Norman said. “We need all hands on the bridge to figure this out. I will work to fight this pandemic and I will find a framework to do so. “

Things will get worse, he said. The virus has already produced 5.6 million variants, of which 26 are of concern, “and there will be many more.” He said it was too early to know more about the omicron variant.

If the pandemic was a ball game, Norman said, summer was halftime. Now, “we’re sort of minutes away from the third trimester of this pandemic, and it will be a struggle for the rest. “

He encouraged people to look at each other and ask what they can do to help public health officials and other residents.

“We seem to lean so much towards individual rights that I think we’ve kind of lost the collective protection obligation that we really have for each other,” Norman said. “I know it sounds a little warm and hazy, but we’re in the same boat.”