Kansas Department of Health and Environment secretary Lee Norman discusses on the Kansas Reflector podcast impact of COVID-19 after more than one year of the pandemic. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Physician Lee Norman anticipated the risk of deploying to combat zones with the Kansas National Guard, but the doctor didn’t predict the level of animus directed at public health officials by skeptics of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said an unexpected level of criticism of restrictions, testing and vaccinations had to be accounted for by medical professionals dealing with the reality of a lethal virus infecting more than 10% of the state’s population.
“There was a point in time where I was contacted to have security detail attached, which I did. Plain-clothed deputy sheriffs. Anytime I was going to be in a public setting,” Norman said. “There was very negative sentiment against not just me, but all public health persons in some measure, not just in Kansas, but throughout the country.”
He estimated 20 of the 55 U.S. state and territory health officers were fired, resigned under pressure or stepped away voluntarily in the past year. The pandemic also took a toll on local health officers in Kansas, he said.
“I was taken back by how vulnerable I felt at certain points along the way for this kind of angry, threatening behavior,” he said during the Kansas Reflector podcast.
In the beginning
In Kansas, the unsettling but inevitable news came on March 7, 2020. Kansas had its first case of the novel coronavirus. It was a woman living in Johnson County who had traveled to northeast United States.
Since then, more than 311,000 Kansans have been infected. No corner of the state was immune. People under 1 year of age and folks as old as 108 tested positive. Forty-five of the state’s 105 counties had more than 1,000 confirmed cases. Overall, more than 5,000 infected Kansans have died. Only the callous would be dismissive of those numbers.
Norman said the pandemic left a deep footprint on health professionals at small, medium and large hospitals — any facility with COVID-19 units.
“I’ll tell you, it’s a grind. A lot of people got sick,” he said. “The vaccine really helped to elevate the mood. But you know, you talk about post-traumatic stress, we have a lot of built up stress out there in our providers, a lot of exhaustion, and that doesn’t go away overnight.
“And it’s especially true when they find themselves being pulled to different directions and getting the immense frustration of people coming in that could be vaccinated right now. It’s all unvaccinated people for the most part coming in the hospital sick. It’s hard to not be angry at people for not being vaccinated and for voluntarily getting sick.”
Searching for herd immunity
Norman said Kansas is statistically moving in the right direction with falling per-capita numbers of cases, deaths and hospitalizations. About 40% of the state’s population has received the first dose of vaccine, which amounts to 1.2 million first doses, and about 900,000 have been fully vaccinated. It’s not clear yet, he said, what percentage equated to herd immunity.
“I would like to see it at 80% or greater,” said the KDHE secretary, who has a clear idea of the vaccination gaps. “Whites and Asians tend to be more vaccinated than Hispanics, although Hispanic and Latinx individuals are not far behind. African Americans are probably the least vaccinated group, despite what I think is a very credible effort towards getting racial and ethnic vaccines attended to.”
He said urban residents in Kansas were more likely to have been vaccinated that rural residents. Folks ranging in age from 18 to 30 were among the least vaccinated. In addition, he said, white evangelical Christians tend to not be as vaccinated as people from other faiths. Political conservatives are less likely to be vaccinated than people with more liberal political ideologies, he said.
Some people have found it necessary to conceal that they have been vaccinated to avoid conflict with family members or others in the community.
“It’s unvaccinated people that are getting the virus, and they’re the ones that go into hospitals and die,” Norman said.
Availability of vaccinations for Kansans teens is another good sign because youthful people have proven adept at catching and spreading the virus while remaining asymptomatic, Norman said. Students ought to be vaccinated before return to classes in the fall, he said.
He anticipated vaccines would eventually be authorized for children six months of age and older, but that likely wouldn’t occur during the summer.
CDC’s mask guidance
Guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention allows vaccinated people to go inside businesses without a face covering. The CDC’s decision reflects a sharp decline in cases, rising vaccination rates and evidence the shots work on new variants of COVID-19.
“I think it was a bold move, to say that fully vaccinated people can be unmasked indoors, don’t need to even socially distance. So, I think, it’s a good move. It will cause a problem, I think, because vaccinated people it kind of will open the door for them to not wear masks and not socially distance, because the word from the CDC that just came out, doesn’t change anything for unvaccinated persons,” Norman said.
The Legislature recently passed a bill opening up as much as $500 million in federal relief dollars to businesses enduring economic hardship from coronavirus mandates imposed by city, county or state officials.
Norman said Kansas small businesses struggling to thrive could make good use of that aid, but he was disappointed some state legislators sought to extract the money to punish state and local officials for fighting the killer virus by temporarily closing some businesses, limiting mass gatherings, maintaining social distancing or requiring masks to be worn.
Norman said KDHE did a solid job of forecasting disease activity in Kansas and where it would emerge. The state correctly concluded the pandemic wasn’t going to produce bed shortages, but would result in staffing shortages at hospitals.
“We chose not to buy hydroxychloroquine. And the reason was, we talked to people in Europe. They said it don’t work,” he said.
Norman said he underestimated the impact of social psychology on how people reacted to political upheaval of COVID-19.
“The social psychology really needed as much attention as the science, the biology and the evidence,” he said. “We put a lot of eggs in the basket of, ‘If we talk to people and share openly, transparently the science and epidemiology, that they will follow suit with me because they believe in science.’ We are wrong.”
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