HARRISBURG, Pa. – Dr. Rachel Levine, who has helped to lead Pennsylvania through an opioid crisis and now the COVID-19 pandemic, was picked Tuesday by President-elect Joe Biden to be his assistant secretary of health, putting her on track to be the first openly transgender federal official to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
“Dr. Rachel Levine will bring the steady leadership and essential expertise we need to get people through this pandemic – no matter their zip code, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability – and meet the public health needs of our country in this critical moment and beyond,” Biden said in a statement.
“She is a historic and deeply qualified choice to help lead our administration’s health efforts.”
Levine had not made a statement on her selection as of Tuesday morning, but had a news conference scheduled at noon EST.
It’s unclear who would fill her role in the state, where the coronavirus continues to surge.
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Vice President-elect Kamala Harris in a statement described Levine as “a remarkable public servant with the knowledge and experience to help us contain this pandemic, and protect and improve the health and well-being of the American people.”
“President-elect Biden and I look forward to working with her to meet the unprecedented challenges facing Americans and rebuild our country in a way that lifts everyone up.”
She needs confirmation from the Senate for her new post.
One year later: The first US case. The first death. The first outbreak at a nursing home.
Bringing Levine to Washington
Biden has formed a diverse Cabinet, and Levine adds to that. But she will also bring a wealth of experience to the position.
A pediatrician and professor at Penn State College of Medicine, Levine was chosen by Gov. Tom Wolf in 2015 to be physician general. In 2017, he tapped her to be secretary of health.
She is an accomplished doctor, who graduated from Harvard College and the Tulane University School of Medicine. Levine completed her medical training in pediatrics and adolescent medicine at the Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York.
Biden’s statement pointed out that Levine was confirmed three times by the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania state Senate to serve first as the state’s physician general and then the secretary of health.
But she has faced numerous headwinds from Republicans during the pandemic, as they have loudly and repeatedly challenged her mitigation efforts to stop the spread of the deadly coronavirus.
State Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, and Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, called for her resignation in May after Levine said she removed her mother from a nursing home as COVID-19 cases were surging.
They accused her of “malpractice” and failing Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable seniors because the majority of deaths have been residents of long-term care facilities.
Diamond said the high volume of nursing home deaths in Kirkland, Washington, at the start of the pandemic should have been a warning to Levine.
“Instead of heeding that clear warning, Dr. Levine instituted Department of Health policies which halted routine inspections and issued guidance for nursing facilities to admit and readmit patients who tested positive for COVID-19,” Diamond said in May.
“For vulnerable Pennsylvanians residing in those facilities, it’s like they were being forced to live within a ticking time bomb.”
It was a bad situation that Levine removed her mother from while others perished, he said.
Levine, during a press conference in May, said it was her mother’s decision.
“My mother requested and my sister and I, as her children, complied to move her to another location during the COVID-19 outbreak,” she said.
“My mother is 95 years old. She is very intelligent and more than competent to make her own decisions.”
Levine pointed out that her mother was in a personal care home, not a nursing home, and that personal care homes fall under the oversight of the Department of Human Services, which she does not lead.
Levine and Wolf had blamed the high number of deaths in nursing homes on the lack of a federal strategy, personal protective equipment that was hard to find and access to testing that was slow to come.
Wolf along the way said his health secretary was doing a “phenomenal job” and that Republicans often blamed the messenger.
Working through jabs, insults
A day after Levine responded to months of transphobic attacks, Diamond mocked her speech that called for more acceptance of the LGBTQ community. He called for tolerance of the “unmasked community.”
Diamond, playing on Levine’s words, said he wanted to respond to “the multiple incidents of harassment and specifically hate and intolerance directed at me” because of his refusal to wear a mask. He said those “attacks” hurt “thousands of unmasked Pennsylvanians.”
Wolf said Diamond’s antics were “abhorrent, disrespectful, dangerous” and a “thinly veiled attack on the LGBTQ community.” He called for Diamond to be censured by GOP House leadership, who did not answer the call.
“To equate any disrespect for those not wearing masks to the decades of disrespect, threats and violence against our LGBTQ community goes far beyond the hallmarks of a decent society,” Wolf said in a statement.
“For these actions to come from a legislator elected to fairly represent all his constituents is simply unforgivable.”
But whatever Levine faced from Republican lawmakers didn’t compare to what she faced from some voters and online trolls, who repeatedly made transphobic slurs in the comment thread of her daily coronavirus briefings and circulated photos and misinformation about her identity before the world knew her as a woman.
Paul Abel, a commissioner in Scott Township, outside Pittsburgh, resigned after saying at a public meeting he was “tired of listening to a guy dressed up like a woman.”
In Hellam, a small community in south-central Pennsylvania, the administrator of the recreation commission’s Facebook page posted a meme that said: “If you are ordered to wear a mask by a guy who wears a bra, you might be Pennsylvanian,” a riff on comedian Jeff Foxworthy’s “You Might Be a Redneck If …” routine. The mayor denounced the post and said it “does NOT represent who we are or what we feel.”
A Pittsburgh radio personality repeatedly called Levine “sir” while questioning the health secretary during a press call, prompting Levine to respond: “Please don’t misgender me … It’s really insulting.”
Levine never let transphobia and harassment deter her from her work.
When the USA TODAY Pennsylvania Capitol Bureau asked her in July how she was handling the wave of criticism – which was overwhelmingly about her gender identity and not her handling of public health – Levine said this.
“I’m completely focused on the pandemic. That’s what I’m fighting.”
Follow reporter Candy Woodall on Twitter at @candynotcandace
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This article originally appeared on York Daily Record: Rachel Levine picked for assistant health secretary in Biden Cabinet