(TNS) — Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine may soon have a new top boss: Joe Biden.
On Tuesday morning, a day before Biden is sworn in as the 46th President of the United States, he appointed Levine, from his native Pennsylvania, as Assistant Secretary for Health. She would be the first openly transgender person to be confirmed by the Senate and serve in federal office.
"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. "She is a historic and deeply qualified choice to help lead our administration's health efforts."
Levine's friend and colleague Adrian Shanker, executive director of Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center in Allentown, said he was "ecstatic and beaming with pride" upon hearing of Levine's appointment. "This is a groundbreaking, history-making nomination," he said. "But that's not why Dr. Levine will do a great job in this role. It's not because she is a transgender woman. It's that she will make a tremendous difference for the American people's public health."
For more than 10 months now, Levine has been the face of Pennsylvania's response to the coronavirus pandemic, holding live-streamed briefings several times a week. She is also a professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at the Penn State College of Medicine. Her expertise includes eating disorder treatment, the opioid crisis, adolescent medicine, medical marijuana, and LGBTQ medicine.
Gov. Tom Wolf in a statement called Levine "a highly skilled and valued member of my administration" and "a wise and dedicated partner" who "will be greatly missed" in Harrisburg.
Shanker, who has been friends with Levine for a decade, said he spoke to her Tuesday morning and expressed how excited he was for "all Americans to benefit" from Levine's experience.
"I can't speak for her," he said. But "I can certainly say that LGBT Pennsylvanians are so excited for this nomination."
As the first transgender person to lead a Pennsylvania state agency, Levine has singlehandedly increased the visibility of transgender people in the commonwealth.
During her tenure, the 63-year-old has stood up for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning people in the face of personal transphobic attacks.
"I and the people of Pennsylvania owe her a debt of gratitude for her leadership, strength and dedication to protecting every person's health amid unprecedented circumstances — and, at times, amid hateful distractions," Wolf said. " Dr. Levine is both competent and compassionate, and never lets the anger or fear of others sway her from her goals."
Most of the time, Levine chooses not to address the hate, which has moved supporters to create a #RespectforRachel hashtag and a Facebook fan page with more than 8,000 members. She prefers to stay on message, focusing on the severity of the coronavirus pandemic and how important it is for all Pennsylvanians to "do our part to stop the spread."
But in July, she addressed a string of transphobic attacks head-on.
"While these individuals may think that 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," she said at a briefing.
"I have no room in my heart for hatred. And frankly, I do not have time for intolerance."
Levine was confirmed as the commonwealth's Secretary of Health in March 2018. She had already made history three years earlier when she became the first transgender person appointed to a Pennsylvania cabinet position. Before the pandemic struck in March, Levine led the commonwealth's response to the opioid epidemic, helped establish its medical marijuana program, and worked to ensure equal access and care for people in the LGBTQ community.
"Her work for our commonwealth has been transformational," Wolf said, "and I appreciate it more than I can say."
In Biden's statement announcing Levine's appointment, he was quick to point out that she was confirmed three times by the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania state senate.
Before joining the governor's administration, Levine worked for two decades at Penn State Health's Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. While there, she created a multidisciplinary program to treat eating disorders.
A native of the Boston suburbs, Levine graduated from Harvard College and the Tulane University School of Medicine, and trained in pediatrics and adolescent medicine at New York City's Mount Sinai Medical Center.
"Dr. Rachel Levine is 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," Vice president-elect Kamala Harris said in a statement.
Asked after Biden's win whether she had been contacted by the incoming administration, Levine said she had not, and the buzz about the possibility had since died down . While Levine would rather keep the focus off of herself, Gov. Wolf has always been quick to tote her accomplishments, saying publicly in recent months that Biden would be lucky to have Levine on his team.
On Tuesday, the governor said he would announce Levine's replacement later this week.
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