Dr. Rachel Levine: ‘Stay calm, stay home, stay well’

Secretary of Health Rachel Levine to provides updates on COVID-19 via virtual press conference. Courtesy Gov. Tom Wolf

Pennsylvanians have been looking to one local trans woman for support and comfort over the last month: Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine. 

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Levine has been the daily face of data-driven science as well as empathic calm amid fear and uncertainty. In her press conferences, after reminding people to wash their hands for the full 20 seconds, Levine signs off with, “Stay calm, stay home, stay safe” — her voice both confident and soothing.

On March 31, Gov. Tom Wolf tweeted:

If Twitter and Facebook are indicators, Pennsylvanians agree. Both social media platforms are full of messages to Levine, acknowledging their appreciation. “I look forward to your daily updates. You explain things so regular non-medical people understand. Thank you.” “Thank you for all you continue to do to keep us all safe!!” “Thank you Dr. Levine. You are amazing. I love you.” and “LOVE YOU QUEEN!”

Wolf’s recognition of Levine’s dedication is well-founded. Levine has explained to reporters in her daily press conferences that she is now working 12 or more hours a day, seven days a week, trying to keep the pandemic in check in Pennsylvania. Her day begins at the office at 7 a.m. She organizes staff meetings at 8 a.m., followed by more meetings with Wolf and the state’s FEMA director, Randy Padfield.

Then come the televised press conferences, which have gotten longer as the number of cases and deaths have risen.

Levine has told local media that her work is very much a team effort with Wolf — his staff and hers — as well as the staff of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Association. Her office has been moved to the Bureau of Public Health Preparedness at PEMA in Harrisburg to combat the global pandemic.

During Pride Month 2015, Levine was confirmed as Pennsylvania’s Physician General. Levine is the first transgender person to be appointed to a governor’s cabinet in Pennsylvania. That year, she was the grand marshal of the Philadelphia Pride Parade.

Before joining Wolf’s administration, Levine spent nearly 20 years working at Penn State Hershey Medical Center, where she served as the Chief of the Division for Adolescent Medicine and Eating Disorders, which she created. While in that position, Levine also served on the board of the statewide LGBTQ advocacy group, Equality Pennsylvania. Levine was also a member of Capital Region Stonewall Democrats.

In 2014, then Gov.-elect Wolf asked Levine to co-chair his transition team on healthcare issues. Her primary focus had been the opioid epidemic that reached crisis levels in Pennsylvania and nationwide. Nearly 2,500 people died of drug overdoses in Pennsylvania in 2014. It was Levine who arranged to have Naloxone — which can save the life of an overdose victim — available for administration via a “standing order” at local pharmacies so that family members could access the drug for their loved ones. She initiated the passage of Act 139 to make the drug available statewide. Levine also signed an order allowing law enforcement officials to carry Naloxone.

When Wolf asked Levine to be his physician general, she told the media that she wanted to have a broader impact on LGBT health and also to make trans people more visible.

She was confirmed unanimously by Pennsylvania’s overwhelmingly conservative and majority Republican legislature. At the time, she told NBC News, “One of the things I’m most proud of is that I was unanimously confirmed by the [State] Senate,” adding, “They judged me strictly on my professional qualifications.”

Levine also said, “We need to do a better job educating medical students about LGBT issues and transgender medicine.”

Levine’s history as a physician and health care leader is extensive and impressive, having graduated from Harvard and Tulane Universities. She was the chief resident at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, where she also taught and was a pediatrician. Mount Sinai is now a focal point in the coronavirus pandemic.

As head of the coronavirus task force for the state, Levine has focused on three areas: mitigation efforts like staying home and practicing social distancing if it is necessary to go out, expanding testing and preparation for the surge of cases she has warned is to come.

At her press conferences, Levine has repeatedly explained that Pennsylvanians will know that the pandemic is waning when there is a decrease in new cases in the state. At that point, she says, the state will determine what the next steps will be.

On the International Transgender Visibility Day this year, Levine gave yet another press conference — the death toll in Pennsylvania is rising. She told The Advocate, “I want to be judged upon my work in medicine and in public health, and in this difficult time, in my work to help to protect the public health in the face of this global pandemic. It doesn’t make any difference what someone’s gender identity or sexual orientation is. We’re really all in this together.”

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.