Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine, leader of the state’s coronavirus pandemic response and among the nation’s highest-profile transgender public officials, has been nominated to a key role in President-elect Joe Biden’s new administration.
If confirmed as the nation’s assistant secretary for health, Levine, 63, will be the highest-ranking openly transgender official ever to serve in the federal government, and the first to face confirmation by the U.S. Senate.
Colleagues, friends, and public health experts in Pennsylvania and beyond praised Levine’s steady, matter-of-fact approach and decades of experience as a pediatrician. Before becoming the state’s top public health official, she worked for more than 20 years at Penn State’s Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.
“What we like best about her is that she is always available to talk to us. She’s been a leader. She joined the Wolf administration, rolled up her sleeves, and learned what the problems are,” said Michael A. DellaVecchia, an ophthalmologist in Ardmore and the president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society.
In the public eye since being named state physician general in 2015, Levine has weathered ongoing transphobic attacks with a steady, calm advocacy that has won her praise at a time when the health-care establishment is recognizing the importance of ensuring equity for marginalized groups.
“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 announcing his choice Tuesday. “She is a historic and deeply qualified choice to help lead our administration’s health efforts.”
Levine said in a statement Tuesday that she had been honored to serve in Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration and was looking forward to “the opportunity to continue to serve Pennsylvanians, and all Americans.” She wrote that she was proud of her work on the state’s opioid epidemic and in addressing health inequities in the state — including among LGBTQ Pennsylvanians.
Yvonne Michael, an associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics in Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health, said that focusing on health equity will be key.
“Continuing Dr. Levine’s efforts on behalf of the public health infrastructure to Washington, funding significant local health positions, will both meet the Biden administration’s goal of employment and address the huge health inequities and distrust of science and public health that we have going on,” she said. “I think she will bring a really important lens to her role in Washington.”
Levine’s friend and colleague Adrian Shanker, executive director of Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center in Allentown, said he was “ecstatic and beaming with pride” upon hearing of Levine’s appointment.
“This is a groundbreaking, history-making nomination,” he said. “But that’s not why Dr. Levine will do a great job in this role. It’s not because she is a transgender woman. It’s that she will make a tremendous difference for the American people’s public health.”
Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said Levine gives trans children across America the opportunity to look up to someone in a high position. “But that’s not why she was appointed,” Keisling said. “It simply is not.”
Keisling, who has spoken with Biden about issues impacting trans people, said he’s laser-focused on the pandemic, and “is super serious about getting the best people in there. And Dr. Levine is the best people.”
Face of the pandemic response
For nearly a year, Levine has been the face of Pennsylvania’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, holding livestreamed briefings several times a week. She is also a professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at the Penn State College of Medicine. Her expertise includes eating-disorder treatment, the opioid crisis, adolescent medicine, medical marijuana, and LGBTQ medicine.
“I and the people of Pennsylvania owe her a debt of gratitude for her leadership, strength and dedication to protecting every person’s health amid unprecedented circumstances – and, at times, amid hateful distractions,” Wolf said. “Dr. Levine is both competent and compassionate, and never lets the anger or fear of others sway her from her goals.”
Levine, an early and frequent advocate of mask-wearing and social distancing, has consistently focused on asking Pennsylvanians to “do our part to stop the spread.”
By some measures — engaging contact tracers and testing residents per capita — Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 response is behind that of most states. But to judge from its rate of illness — at 6,000 confirmed infections per 100,000 people, more than 1,000 fewer than the national average — it has fared better than most.
Paul Offit, a Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia pediatrician and vaccine expert, wrote in an email that it was a “pleasure” to work with Levine on the state’s coronavirus task force.
“During our biweekly meetings, she has been inspirational, smart, humorous, and shown a remarkable ability to make everyone on the call feel that they have something important to say. A remarkable person,” he said.
Though she focused almost entirely on public-health messaging during the pandemic, Levine addressed a string of transphobic attacks head-on in July.
“While these individuals may think that they are only expressing their displeasure with me, they are in fact hurting the thousands of LGBTQ Pennsylvanians who suffer directly from these current demonstrations of harassment,” she said at a briefing.
The epidemic before the pandemic
Before the pandemic struck in March, Levine led the commonwealth’s response to the opioid epidemic, including signing the standing order that allowed people to obtain naloxone, the overdose-reversing drug, at pharmacies without a prescription. (Amid the pandemic, she signed a new order allowing Pennsylvanians to obtain naloxone through the mail.)
Cathleen Palm, a longtime child health activist and founder of the Center for Children’s Justice in Bernville, said Levine supported her organization’s calls to list neonatal abstinence syndrome — when children are exposed to opioids in utero — as a reportable health condition.
“As a physician, she understood that it is hard to change the trajectory of a public health crisis if we do not have reliable data about exactly how many babies are born each year withdrawing from opioids,” Palm said. “She also understood it wasn’t just about counting, but instead it was about working to improve outcomes for these infants and their mothers, including reducing the likelihood that a woman would relapse or die from an overdose in the postpartum period.”
Levine also helped establish the state’s medical marijuana program, and worked to ensure equal access and care for people in the LGBTQ community.
“Her work for our commonwealth has been transformational,” Wolf said, “and I appreciate it more than I can say.”
Before joining the governor’s administration, Levine worked for two decades at Penn State Health’s Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.
One of the people Levine mentored during her time at Penn State was Lori Frasier, now chief of the Division of Child Abuse Pediatrics at Penn State Children’s Hospital. Frasier met Levine when Frasier joined the medical school’s faculty in 2013, she said, and was immediately impressed.
Frasier was thrilled when she heard of Levine’s nomination, adding she has regularly listened to her former colleague’s coronavirus news conferences and thought Levine provided calm, confident leadership throughout the pandemic. “I would expect that’s one of the reasons why Biden tapped her.”
Frasier also praised the comprehensive child-and-adult eating-disorder treatment program Levine established at Penn State, an “impressive” program that incorporates mental and physical health. Levine has “tremendous experience” caring for people who are experiencing mental health crises, Frasier added, and that experience will be useful amid a pandemic that has left so many, including children and young adults, struggling.
“It’s just heartwarming that [Biden’s pick] is a pediatrician,” Frasier said. “Pediatricians just have a different way of looking at the world.”
A native of the Boston suburbs, Levine 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.
On Tuesday, the governor said he would announce Levine’s replacement later this week.
Staff writers Anna Orso, Tom Avril, and Marie McCullough contributed to this article.