Dr. Rachel Levine is 1st transgender official confirmed by US Senate

Dr. Rachel Levine

Dr. Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania’s secretary of health, speaks during a virtual press conference on March 20, 2020, about COVID-19 cases and infections in the state. Photo: State of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Rachel Levine on Wednesday became the first transgender official confirmed by the U.S. Senate, making history as she was confronted with transphobia and mounting questions about her handling of COVID-19 in Pennsylvania nursing homes and long-term care facilities.

Levine will serve as the assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services in the Biden Administration.

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pennsylvania, voted against Levine after he  criticized her for a lack of accountability, transparency and proper oversight as thousands of seniors died in nursing homes and long-term care facilities.

“In Pennsylvania, the pandemic struck seniors in nursing homes disproportionately hard compared to other states. This was due in part to poor decisions and oversight by Dr. Levine and the Wolf administration,” Toomey said in a statement Wednesday.

Nursing home deaths account for about half of all COVID-19 deaths in Pennsylvania, and four of the top 12 long-term care facilities with the most coronavirus deaths nationwide are in the state, according to the Pocono Record.

In early April, Levine said she was particularly concerned about nursing homes. At the time, 300 people had died in Pennsylvania’s long-term care facilities. Within a month, those deaths spiked 550 percent to 2,108 deaths, the paper said.

The increase came as state and federal regulators stopped routine inspections in nursing homes, including facilities that had been repeatedly cited by the state for failure to protect patients from infectious and communicable diseases, according to the newspaper. 

Levine faced questions about that and missing nursing home data during her confirmation process, but received enough support from Democrats and some Republicans.

The Senate voted 52-48 Wednesday to confirm Levine, with support from all Democrats and two Republicans: Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.

Levine graduated from Harvard College and the Tulane University School of Medicine. Levine completed her medical training in pediatrics and adolescent medicine at the Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York.

Before her life in public service, Levine worked as a doctor and professor of pediatrics and psychiatry for the Penn State College of Medicine.

Levine is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine and the Academy for Eating Disorders. And she spent much of the pandemic as the president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf in 2015 asked Levine to be physician general. In 2017, he tapped her to be secretary of health. 

Wolf has said Levine’s accomplishments in Pennsylvania include establishing the state’s medical marijuana program, bringing national awareness to opioid use disorder, and highlighting and promoting the need for adequate medical care and access for the LGBTQ community.

About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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