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Pennsylvania’s Health Secretary Rachel Levine fights hate, fear, and the coronavirus

Levine, the Pennsylvania Health Secretary, has become the face of the state's fight against the coronavirus. She's attracted trolls and adoring fans on her quest to make sure state residents stay safe.

Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine speaking at the virtual press conference.
Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine speaking at the virtual press conference.Read moreCommonwealth Media Services

Every afternoon Dr. Rachel Levine stands behind a lectern in Harrisburg and answers questions about death counts and infection rates. She calmly, matter-of-factly, updates Pennsylvanians on the coronavirus’ toll.

Levine, the Pennsylvania health secretary, has become the face of the state’s fight against the catastrophic virus, standing beside Gov. Tom Wolf, or running the show solo, with a leather portfolio and head full of numbers and policy directives for quarantined citizens watching on phones or laptops.

“Remember, I wear my mask to protect you and you wear your mask to protect me,” she said with an instructional, sing-song-lilt during a recent news conference.

Levine, 62, was already better known than many state health secretaries for becoming the first transgender person appointed to a Pennsylvania cabinet position in 2015, when she was named state physician general. She became secretary two years later.

But the spotlight has grown hotter now. Her guidance shapes state policies on what stays open or closed, sparking protests and praise. She oversees how the department’s data get collected — the subject of some recent criticism by state coroners questioning its accuracy. She answers for all of it in daily briefings, peppered with questions from the media, viewed by thousands on the Health Department’s Facebook Live page.

Those videos appear beside a comment stream that is equal parts sincere questions, praise for Levine, and hateful personal attacks. A Cumberland County restaurant owner apologized after putting up a sign with a crack about Levine others called disparaging and mean. A Braddock businessman was called out for posting videos of himself impersonating Levine while wearing a wig.

She doesn’t address the trolls. And her office has declined interview requests related to Levine, personally. “To make sure the message remains focused,” spokesperson Nate Wardle said this week.

» FAQ: Your coronavirus questions, answered.

Levine did comment on the hate speech in an interview with a local TV station a few weeks ago, though. She quoted Yoda.

“Fear is the path to the dark side," she told Ryan Leckey, of a local ABC affiliate. "Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering. I think people fear when they don’t understand. ... Hopefully with my having this role it can educate people and they will fear less and they will hate less.”

Levine may brush off the comments, but there’s a broader effect, said colleague and friend Adrian Shanker, who runs the Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center in Allentown. “I know Secretary Levine is way more concerned about adherence to public health messages than she is on baseless personal attacks," he said. "But I also know that LGBTQ people in Pennsylvania don’t deserve to see those public displays of bigotry when they’re trying to get information about staying safe.”

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Levine doesn’t like focusing on herself, Shanker said. She’s always on message, and usually draped in a stylish pashmina. Her Twitter account is filled with tips on how to stay safe and reminders to focus on mental health.

“Frankly, the best way to show respect for Rachel would be to wash your hands, wear a mask, and socially distance to make sure we can save as many lives as possible,” Shanker said. “I know that’s what she wants.”

The nasty comments have inspired the hashtag #RespectforRachel on Twitter and Facebook and a Facebook fan club with more than 3,000 members. They describe Levine in such glowing terms as “our sweet angel on earth" and "Pennsylvania’s calming mother.”

The celebritizing of public health officials extends to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the 79-year-old infectious-disease expert whose face has been printed on mugs and T-shirts. President Donald Trump’s coronavirus response coordinator, Dr. Deborah Birx, has a group of fans specifically excited about her scarves.

“Public health isn’t always front-page stuff,” said Nathaniel Smith, the secretary of health for the state of Arkansas, and a colleague of Levine’s. “But this is requiring a level of engagement by state public health officials that has never been seen in any of our lifetimes. I think people want to hear from public health professionals.”

Smith credited Levine, who is taking over for him as president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, with giving sound advice to peers as she leads the fight in Pennsylvania.

Levine graduated from Harvard College and the Tulane University School of Medicine. She trained in pediatrics and adolescent medicine at New York City’s Mount Sinai Medical Center. She spent two decades at Penn State Health, Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, where she established a multidisciplinary program to treat eating disorders. Before the coronavirus, Levine led the state’s response to the opioid epidemic.

Dr. Fauzia Mahr, now vice chief of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Hershey Medical, was a mentee of Levine’s.

She said Levine created the program for adolescents with eating disorders with next to nothing — by finding resources and recruiting a talented, diverse team of people.

“She just kind of rolled up her sleeves and started looking for resources within the system she could tap into,” Mahr said. “People hired by Dr. Levine like 18 years ago, they’re still working in the division and running it."

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Mahr witnessed Levine put out several fires during their 14 years of knowing each other — from faculty shortages to patients in mental health crises. She said her former boss has a way of using humor to defuse tense situations. She also marveled at Levine’s organizational acumen, able to whittle down 300 emails to 0 by day’s end.

“Beyond being a great leader, she’s a generally decent soul and I think that’s really the essence of a good physician, that you have a helpful soul and you stand up for people who are vulnerable.”

Levine grew up in Wakefield, Mass., a suburb north of Boston, in a family of lawyers. She attended the all-boys’ college prep Belmont Hill School, where she played lineman on the football team. Levine is divorced and has two children, now adults. She made the transition to become a woman about 15 years ago. While she is a national speaker on LGBTQ health issues and discusses her own identity, she’s protective and private about her family and friends.

She has mentioned in news conferences missing getting to see her elderly mother in person but calling frequently — using the personal anecdote as a teachable moment.

On Wednesday, in between questions about testing sites and hospital preparedness, she answered one asking how she was doing.

“I am doing very well, thank you," she said in the same cadence she used for the other questions, slow and steady, as if gently taking a child through a checklist on how to stay safe. "I’m trying to get enough sleep and eat well and get rest when I can. I tend to be a pretty calm person anyways.

“Thank you for asking.”