GOP leader says Kansas health department chief misled public on mask mandates

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Dr. Lee Norman (AP Photo/John Hanna)

TOPEKA, Kan. — A Republican leader in the Kansas Legislature on Monday accused Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s top public health administrator of using a misleading presentation to bolster their argument for requiring people to wear masks in public as a debate rages over imposing mandates to get the coronavirus under control.

House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins’ criticism of Dr. Lee Norman, head of the state Department of Health and Environment, came after the CEO of the small-government, free-market Kansas Policy Institute think tank suggested in an online article that Norman had “deceptively doctored” a chart used in a news conference last week “to justify mask mandates.”

Norman acknowledged in an interview that the chart might have caused confusion but said the central point — that requiring masks checks the virus’s spread — remains valid.

Republican leaders in the GOP-controlled Legislature have been at odds with Kelly for months over her handling the pandemic and have successfully pressured her into allowing the state’s 105 counties to set the rules for businesses and public gatherings. Kelly issued an order July 2 to require people to wear masks in public, but a law enacted in June allows counties to opt out of her health orders, and most have opted out of the mask mandate.

Hawkins, a Wichita Republican, has pushed to put local officials in charge, opposed mask mandates and told reporters that he dislikes wearing a mask himself because they’re uncomfortable.

He tried to raise questions about Norman’s presentation last week on masks during a public Zoom meeting Monday between Kelly and eight top lawmakers, only to have her cut him off, telling him that his comments weren’t relevant to the unrelated issues they were discussing.

“Your administration has a problem with transparency,” Hawkins told Kelly. “You have agencies that are giving out not-so-good information.”

The state health department reported Monday that Kansas has had 31,730 confirmed and probable coronavirus virus cases as of Monday, up 3.6% or 1,092 cases since Friday. The department also reported another seven COVID-19-related deaths to bring the total to 387.

Norman called criticism of his presentation last week “kind of killing the messenger.”

“Let’s not lose sight of what the goal is,” Norman said. “Hopefully that we can push all the numbers down in mask and no-mask counties — that’s the goal.”

Norman said during a news conference Wednesday that was live-streamed on his department’s Facebook page that counties that have imposed a mask mandate collectively have seen their growth in new coronavirus cases slow down while counties with no mandate have not.

He cited a chart showing that counties with mask mandates had seen the average number of new cases per 100,000 residents drop significantly while counties without mask mandates saw the figure hold relatively steady. The chart combined two graphics starting their scales at different points.

Kansas Policy Institute CEO Dave Trabert said in his article that the chart suggested visually that mask-mandate counties had fewer overall new cases per day, when they did not. Hawkins called the presentation “incredibly misleading.”

Norman said the graph’s presentation of data was “not unheard of” but added, “I think a learned lesson is that it probably is better to separate it out.”

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