President-elect Joe Biden Tuesday selected Pennsylvania’s top health official, Dr. Rachel Levine, to be the nation’s next assistant secretary of health, a role that would make her the first openly transgender federal official.
If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Levine, 63, and the current face of Pennsylvania’s coronavirus response, will become the highest-ranking openly transgender official ever to serve in the federal government. Here’s what to know about Levine and the position she’s been selected for.
‘A historic and deeply qualified choice’
Levine would replace Admiral Brett P. Giroir — the former executive vice president and CEO of Texas A&M’s Health Science Center.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ website, the assistant secretary “leads development of HHS-wide public health policy recommendations and oversees several of the department’s core public health offices — including the Office of the Surgeon General.”
On Tuesday, Biden called Levine “a historic and deeply qualified choice to help lead our administration’s health efforts.”
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris added that Levine “is 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.”
Before she was Pa.’s top health official
Before Gov. Tom Wolf appointed Levine to serve as Pennsylvania’s physician general in 2015, she spent two decades as a pediatrician at Penn State Health, Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, where she established a multidisciplinary program to treat eating disorders. She was named the commonwealth’s acting secretary of health in July 2017 and confirmed as secretary in March 2018. Prior to spearheading coronavirus-mitigation efforts in the commonwealth, Levine led the state’s response to the opioid epidemic. She also helped establish Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana program.
Levine grew up in a family of lawyers in Wakefield, Mass., a Boston suburb. She graduated from Harvard College and the Tulane University School of Medicine, and trained in pediatrics and adolescent medicine at New York City’s Mount Sinai Medical Center.
She is divorced and has two adult children. She also speaks nationally on LGBTQ health issues and visibility. At Penn State’s School of Medicine, she established a LGBTQ staff group and served as facilitator for the LGBTQ student group.
The face of Pennsylvania’s pandemic response
Since the coronavirus pandemic gripped Pennsylvania in March 2020, Levine has been the face of the commonwealth’s COVID-19 response, standing alongside Wolf at regularly broadcast news conferences to provide updates on case counts, deaths, hospitalizations, as well as urging residents to wear masks and avoid crowds.
Throughout the pandemic, Levine has been the target of repeated transphobic attacks from elected officials, business owners, and on social media.
Though she typically chose to avoid commenting on the hate in favor of addressing the worsening pandemic, in July, Levine publicly denounced the discrimination against her and provided encouragement for LGBTQ youth, urging Pennsylvanians to “work toward a spirit of not just tolerance, but a spirit of acceptance and welcoming.”
First openly transgender official for a Senate-confirmed post
With Biden’s selection Tuesday, Levine made history as the first openly transgender official for a post that requires Senate confirmation.
If she is confirmed, she will become the highest-ranking openly transgender federal government official.
The country’s highest-ranking openly transgender elected official is Delaware Sen. Sarah McBride, who in November, became the first and only openly transgender state senator in the United States.
“As an openly transgender woman and a proud member of our community, I hopefully educate people that LGBTQ people are here,” Levine told TODAY in September. “We’re part of the community and we really try to work towards the common good.”