Pennsylvania health secretary to join Biden administration

Dr. Rachel Levine became a familiar figure to many Pennsylvanians over the last 10 months of the coronavirus pandemic, explaining what the state was doing to combat the spread of the virus and begging residents to do their part by wearing a mask, washing their hands and staying away from each other.

“Stay calm, stay alert and stay safe,” the state health secretary said, over and over.

Levine, one of the few transgender people nationwide serving in either elective office or as a high-ranking government appointee, was announced Tuesday as President-elect Joe Biden’s pick to be assistant secretary of health.

She leaves the Pennsylvania Department of Health at a critical time in the statewide response to the pandemic, with the state reporting hundreds of deaths per day and officials struggling to ramp up statewide distribution of the two COVID-19 vaccines amid fluctuating allocations from the federal government.

Levine “has been a wise, calm, and dedicated partner during this pandemic and I couldn’t be prouder of the tireless work she’s done to serve Pennsylvanians,” tweeted her boss, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf. “She will be missed, but I know she will be a tremendous leader” on the federal level.

There was no immediate word on her replacement. The governor’s office said it planned to make an announcement later in the week.

Levine was scheduled to hold her regular weekly news conference about the pandemic Tuesday, but that was scrapped after Biden’s announcement, and a deputy secretary was slated to take her place to talk about the state’s plans for expanded vaccine distribution.

Levine, a pediatrician who graduated from Harvard and Tulane’s medical school, joined the Wolf administration in 2015 as physician general and became health secretary two years later.

When the state announced its first confirmed case of COVID-19 last March, she became the public face of the response and won plaudits for her calm, unflappable demeanor.

But she also earned plenty of enmity from Republicans and small business owners over statewide public health orders for people to stay at home, students to learn remotely, and businesses deemed “non-life-sustaining” to close.

And she faced tough questions over the high COVID death toll at nursing homes, with some Republicans contending the state didn’t do enough to protect vulnerable residents. The state has reported more than 19,000 deaths attributed to COVID-19, over half of which have occurred in nursing homes. Levine defended her agency’s handling of the outbreak.

Some of the criticism of Levine had nothing to do with her decisions as health secretary. As a transgender woman, she endured a stream of mockery and abuse on social media and elsewhere. She opened a news conference last July by addressing the transphobia that was being directed toward her.

“I want to emphasize that while these individuals may think 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,” Levine said. “Your actions perpetuate a spirit of intolerance and discrimination against LGBTQ individuals and specifically transgender individuals.”

Levine is president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. Aside from leading the state pandemic response, she worked on the opioid crisis and the state’s medical marijuana program and promoted LGBTQ medicine.

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