TOPEKA — Kansas Department of Health and Environment secretary Lee Norman says he is used to “looking over my shoulder,” behavior the lieutenant colonel in the Kansas Army National Guard learned while serving as senior medical commander in a combat zone.
Norman again finds himself under threat of attack.
Public health officials across the the country are being threatened by the residents they are trying to protect while managing the COVID-19 pandemic. The Kansas Adjutant General’s office, which oversees emergency preparedness for the state, informed Norman’s staff this week that general threats were being made.
Law enforcement in Kansas are monitoring potential and perceived threats, said Ashley Jones-Wisner, senior director for public affairs at KDHE. Norman said at least one county health officer in Kansas has enlisted 24-hour protection.
Norman said there haven’t been any direct threats against his life, “but there’s a lot of anger out there.”
“There are a lot of people that are getting punchy,” Norman said. “I think it’s out there kind of in the level of the theoretical. I try to always be situational.”
Gov. Laura Kelly has issued a litany of executive orders, based on advice from Norman, to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in Kansas. The response to those orders — including recent efforts to require residents to wear masks in public and delay the start of public schools — has grown increasingly hostile and politically charged.
“We have to take any and all threats seriously,” Kelly said. “My administration, our agencies and law enforcement will continue to be in coordination to ensure the safety of state and local employees. It’s more important than ever that elected officials stick to using public health data and science, and keep politics out of the conversation around COVID-19.”
KDHE for the first time on Wednesday enlisted Kansas Highway Patrol officers to attend a news briefing delivered by Norman. Reporters now are being asked to RSVP and show credentials when they arrive.
Norman’s agency reported the addition of 698 cases of COVID-19 and 14 new deaths in Kansas over a 48-hour period this week. He said health officials in Kansas were monitoring active clusters connected to bars and restaurants, religious gatherings, meat packing plants, group homes, long-term care facilities, and private businesses.
In total, KDHE has recorded 26,870 cases, 1,700 hospitalizations and 349 deaths since the first case in Kansas was discovered in early March.
KDHE enlisted Susan Voorhees, a Topeka psychologist, to join Norman at Wednesday’s briefing and address the anxiety parents and children are feeling as they prepare to return to school.
That anxiety is fueled by uncertainty over when and how in-person instruction will resume, health risks, mandated precautions, screen time, seeing friends and job security. Voorhees said the best thing parents can do is talk to their kids about these worries and let them ask questions.
“We know that anxiety is like the monster under the bed,” Voorhees said. “It hides in the dark. It hides in the areas where we don’t talk about things, where we just let our minds go and wander and imagine — lying in bed at night, wondering about what’s going to happen tomorrow or what we heard on the news.”
Norman said he had witnessed first-hand the mental stress of the months-long pandemic. Managing the state’s response, Norman said, reminded him of his deployment in 2017-18 to the Middle East, where he was responsible for the health of 12,000 troops.
The secretary credited his colleagues at the health agency for providing a good support network for him and each other over the past five months.
“I feel great,” Norman said. “I really do. But it’s not because it’s been easy sledding.”