This Trans Woman Is Leading Pennsylvania’s Coronavirus Response

Supermajority Education Fund

September 11, 2020

Many women leaders have shined during the COVID-19 pandemic and Dr. Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Health, is no exception. She’s earned widespread praise for her data-driven approach to the pandemic response in Pennsylvania. She worked alongside Governor Tom Wolf to quickly close schools and roll out stay-at-home orders that likely saved many lives. Her work and leadership have even inspired a Facebook page that has over 8,000 followers, and a glowing profile in Philadelphia Magazine

Dr. Levine is also an out trans woman — basically a unicorn in public administration roles like Secretary of Health. There are currently just 26 openly transgender elected officials in the United States. She’s the first openly trangender member of the cabinet in Pennsylvania history and the top-ranking transgender official in Pennsylvania

Before her current role as Secretary of Health — to which she was confirmed in 2018 — Dr. Levine served as the state’s physician general, and faced some resistance from members of the Pennsylvania Medical Society after she was nominated for that role. Dr. Levine responded by meeting personally with all of the state senators in their chambers, and talking with them about public health. It worked and an unlikely Republican-controlled legislature came around to unanimously confirm her as the first openly trans woman to serve in the role in 2015. 

Now, Dr. Levine is leading Pennsylvania’s response to the most significant public health crisis in recent history. She is more than qualified and up to challenge — she holds degrees from Harvard College and the Tulane University School of Medicine, completed a residency in pediatrics and fellowship in adolescent medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, and served as an Assistant Professor at the Penn State College of Medicine for two decades. 

Her loyal Facebook fans often comment that they appreciate her calm, candid demeanor. “She makes me feel safer,” wrote one commenter. 

“It is very important to stay calm and focused in the midst of emergencies,” Dr. Levine told The Advocate in March, adding that she learned that skill as a doctor working with “very ill children and adolescents.” 

Before the pandemic put Dr. Levine’s skills to the test, however, she made history by taking decisive, life-saving action in response to the opioid crisis. In 2016, she signed an order that allowed any Pennsylvanian to have access to naloxone at pharmacies without a prescription, a move credited with providing over 10,000 naloxone kits to the community and saving at least 12,700 lives. This is called a ‘standing order’ where a public health official essentially writes a prescription for their entire region. Dr. Levine’s order was the first of its kind in Pennsylvania and joined 33 states with similar orders at the time. In 2020, the number of states with standing orders has risen to 42 states and is expected to rise given its correlation with declining overdose deaths

Dr. Levine has continued to respond to the opioid crisis in her state even while responding to COVID-19. On August 18, Dr. Levine signed an updated naloxone standing order which permits community-based organizations to provide naloxone by mail. In a press release, Dr. Levine stated “we know that there are challenges in getting naloxone to people in need, particularly during a global pandemic, and this standing order will work to assist with that. It is important that people know that treatment works, and recovery is possible.” 

In addition to the opioid epidemic, Dr. Levine is also dedicated to addressing racism as a public health issue and supports the Black Lives Matter movement. “Getting rid of racism is health,” Levine told Philadelphia Magazine in July. 

Yet despite her accomplishments, Dr. Levine has still dealt with harassment at every turn. As she has become more visible, she’s been subjected to transphobic slurs, misogyny, and gross disrespect. On May 12, a reporter from a Pittsburgh radio station repeatedly called Dr. Levine “sir.” He apologized after Dr. Levine asked him to stop misgendering her, however, and quickly corrected course. A local restaurant has also apologized after featuring a menu item called “Levine balls” to mock her, as did a county fair that conducted a fundraiser that featured a dunk tank with a man in a dress meant to represent Dr. Levine. Trump’s campaign adviser, Jenna Ellis, has refused to apologize, however, for referring to the doctor as “this guy” in a tweet. She has since called the backlash to her remark “both hilarious and tragic.” In response, a spokesperson for Dr. Levine told NBC News that she “does not have time for this nonsense.”

On July 28, Dr. Levine personally tweeted in response to the transphobia she has faced. “I have no room in my heart for hatred and frankly, I do not have time for intolerance,” she wrote. 

Despite facing hatred such as this, however, Dr. Levine acknowledged how important it is that trans women like her are visible. “One of my goals, being a state health official — especially being the secretary of health during this very challenging time of a global pandemic — is that people will see me. They’ll see me doing my work and doing the very best I can to protect the public health of everyone in Pennsylvania,” she told Philadelphia Magazine in July.