Lee Norman answers questions for a recording of the Kansas Reflector podcast during an interview at his Kansas City, Missouri, loft. He says he was caught off-guard by the governor’s decision to fire him in November. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
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.
The way he sees it, blind individualism doesn’t work well during a pandemic.
“The United States is a very individualistic-oriented nation — you know, square jaw to the north wind, I’m John Wayne, I can do what I want to do and you can’t stop me,” Norman said. “And I think that works pretty well until it doesn’t.”
Norman talked about his handling of the pandemic and breakup with the governor’s office during an interview at 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 conflict with the governor’s office over his public messaging on the pandemic dated to March.
The governor’s staff wanted a tight, scripted message about the state’s response to COVID-19. Norman said his style was to tell people what he knows today and correct it tomorrow if he gets more information.
As a result, Norman said, “I did get sidelined from a communication perspective.” He thought they would work through the squabbles like a married couple. He didn’t speak directly to the governor about conflict with her staff.
“The joyful noise of disagreement — you come out the other end of it with a better work product,” Norman said. “The governor, or the governor’s staff, felt differently. So that’s how I ended up where I am today.”
Norman didn’t anticipate his departure from state government, but he was prepared for the possibility that a new and deadly virus could induce a global pandemic long before many people were familiar with the threat that became known as COVID-19.
Drinking from a firehose
On Dec. 7, 2019, Norman delivered a presentation about modern-day epidemics to the Council of State Governments at a gathering in Puerto Rico of legislators from across the country.
He had managed the University of Kansas Health System during the SARS outbreak of 2002-2004. In 2017, he deployed to the Middle East as a colonel in the Kansas Army National Guard, and saw firsthand how quickly the the lethal Middle East Respiratory Syndrome could spread.
The fifth slide in his presentation showed a scientist holding a bat, and an article about a MERS- and SARS-like virus that had been found in Myanmar. Later, the disease would become known as COVID-19.
“Even at that session,” Norman said, “there were a couple of legislators that said to me, ‘Aren’t you out stirring the pot and making people nervous and fear mongering?’ ”
Norman said he had “a pretty good idea this could be a problem.” While other states treated COVID-19 as a “nothing burger,” he 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 of 2020, the state’s response was hampered by shortages of personal protective equipment and testing capabilities. Norman blamed the lack of federal direction. Supplies from the Strategic National Stockpile were so outdated, the elastic didn’t work anymore. He half-joked to staff that facemasks arriving from China wouldn’t even make good coffee filters.
The state looked for novel solutions to a novel coronavirus. Could they turn breast pumps into ventilators? It turned out they could. They looked for safe ways to reuse face coverings, which didn’t go over well with health care professionals.
“No matter what you say about UV light, or hydrogen peroxide sterilization of masks, people look at a mask that’s been on some other face, and separate from the question of how well does that process work is just the aesthetics of do I really want to put a mask on that somebody else has already worn before?” Norman said.
From Norman’s perspective, there was so much information it was like “drinking from a firehose.” He had never seen “such a huge thirst” for information. Everybody wanted to know: “What are we learning? What do we know?”
He realized he needed to provide “a rhythm of getting that information out so as to avoid having a void that is filled by garbage information.”
He likes it messy
Peer-reviewed scientific research and data about face masks were clear.
Kansas counties that adopted ordinances requiring residents to wear face masks in public reported a decline in infections between early July and August. In the mostly rural counties that declined to enforce a basic public safety measure, cases remained steady.
Norman produced a chart in August 2020 to demonstrate the effectiveness of masks. The data later was reaffirmed in a study produced by the Centers for Disease Control and Information.
The chart, which used a dual axis to present a desired visual effect, was widely panned by conservatives as misleading — including an opinion article in the Wall Street Journal that falsely claimed the state had “fudged the data.”
“It was absolutely accurate, but it was not understood by some, and some didn’t want to understand it and wanted to discredit it — so they did,” Norman said. “It was certainly not any deliberate attempt to mislead, and some people just don’t look at graphs and understand what they mean. So, lesson learned.”
Controversy over the chart became emblematic of the willingness of political operatives 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 accumulated through surge after surge. As of Friday, KDHE has recorded 6,830 deaths and 486,109 infections from the disease.
Norman said social media allows for easy and “intellectually lazy gathering of information.” Research shows that people will choose to read information, judging from headlines, that supports their opinions.
His approach: “I like it to be messy. I like us to have arguments about what does the data show? What is the evidence? What should we be doing?”
At KDHE, he wanted his team to tell him to stand down if they thought he had reached the wrong conclusion. He would say, “OK, let’s back off, let’s talk through it, and let’s get the evidence.”
“That’s the problem with this disinformation — people that are spouting that have, I think, some other reasons to be doing it,” Norman said. “And they are not at all open minded.”
The third quarter
Norman wants to be remembered as a guy people could trust to deliver quality information, who’s heart is in the right place, and is willing to give “more than a pound of flesh” for the people of Kansas.
He has no plans to retire at age 69.
“I have way too much energy, and I have a lot of enthusiasm for this pandemic,” Norman said. “We need all hands on deck to figure this out. I will work toward fighting this pandemic, and I will find a setting to do that in.”
Things are going to get worse, he said. The virus has spawned 5.6 million variants already, including 26 of significant concerns, “and there’ll be a lot more.” He said it is too early to know much about the omicron variant.
If the pandemic were a ballgame, Norman said, summer was halftime. Now, “we’re kind of a few minutes into the third quarter of this pandemic, and it’s going to be a struggle through the remainder.”
He encouraged people to look at themselves and ask what they can do to help public health officials and fellow residents.
“We seem to be swinging so much toward the individual rights that I think we’ve kind of lost the collective protection obligation that really we have for each other,” Norman said. “I know that sounds kind of warm and fuzzy, but we’re in this together.”
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