Democratic President-elect Joe Biden chose transgender Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine as his assistant secretary of health, the Associated Press reported, noting Levine would be the first openly transgender federal official to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
What did Biden have to say?
"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, according to the AP. "She is a historic and deeply qualified choice to help lead our administration's health efforts."
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris called Levine "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," the AP said.
But not everyone agrees
Despite the glowing reviews from Biden and Harris, Levine last year was part of controversy over how Pennsylvania handled the coronavirus — specifically the state's policy of placing elderly COVID-19 patients into nursing homes in order to keep hospital beds free. Last June, the AP noted in a separate story that nursing homes and personal care facilities had accounted for almost 70% of the state's COVID-19 fatalities.
"This decision likely contributed to the thousands of elderly deaths in Pennsylvania," Republican Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana and other Republican leaders wrote in a June 15 letter to Democratic Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, according to WITF-TV.
But Levine said the assertion wasn't true and defended the policy, the station noted: "There is no evidence that that policy itself contributed to that many deaths," Levine said, adding that the coronavirus typically enters nursing homes through workers who don't have symptoms.
And another thing
Also, Levine moved her 95-year-old mother out of a personal care facility due to the pandemic — and then fell under scrutiny for the decision, PennLive reported last May.
Levine said her mother was in a personal care home, not a nursing home, PennLive added, noting the facility was under the jurisdiction of the state Department of Human Services, not the state Department of Health.
Wolf appointed Levine — a pediatrician — as Pennsylvania's health secretary in 2017, the AP reported.
Levine was one of the few transgender individuals serving in elected or appointed positions nationwide, the AP added, noting Levine won past confirmation by the Republican-majority Pennsylvania Senate and "has emerged as the public face of the state's response to the coronavirus pandemic."
Prior to the pandemic, Levine raised some eyebrows in 2019 for approving a recommendation to add anxiety disorders and Tourette syndrome to the list of qualifying conditions to obtain certifications to use medical marijuana.
Once the coronavirus hit, Levine's name began popping up in the news a bit more:
- In late April 2020, Pennsylvania was forced to remove hundreds of names from its official coronavirus death count after errors in the state's counting methodology were discovered.
- Jeffrey Conner, the coroner in Franklin County, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that "coroners are frustrated" and complained of a "lack of leadership from the Department of Health and a lack of definitive answers." Levine told the paper in reference to the count controversy, "At times, there are things we need to review, and potentially revisit the way the data is being analyzed. And this is one of those times."
- Last September a federal judge ruled in favor of several Pennsylvania counties that filed a lawsuit against Wolf and Levine over coronavirus restrictions and a state order to close all "non-life-sustaining businesses."
- Just prior to Thanksgiving, Levine announced a state mandate requiring the wearing of masks inside private homes when members of different households gather.