Biden assistant HHS secretary pick ordered Pa. elderly care homes to accept people with COVID-19

Controversial rule was later blamed for the large death toll the pandemic has wrought in the state's care facilities.

Updated: January 20, 2021 - 3:40pm

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President-elect Joe Biden has picked Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine to serve as assistant secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS). If confirmed by the Senate, Levine, a transgender female, would become the first openly transgender federal official.

Levine, a pediatrician and former Pennsylvania physician general, won confirmation by the Republican-majority Pennsylvania Senate and has since become the face of the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"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."

But Levine's handling of the pandemic in Pennsylvania has drawn fire for her. In March 2020, the state government ordered elderly care facilities to accept patients who had tested positive for the virus.

That state policy stipulated that elderly care facilities "must continue to accept new admissions and receive readmissions for current residents who have been discharged from the hospital who are stable," including residents who had contracted COVID-19. The policy was meant to "alleviate the increasing burden in the acute care settings."

The rule was later blamed for the significant death toll the pandemic has wrought in the state's care facilities: The deaths in the state have disproportionately occurred in nursing homes, with more than 2,400 of the state's nearly 4,000 deaths by May occurring there.

Yet even as coronavirus-positive patients were being funneled into state nursing homes, Levine, then the state's secretary of health, drew flak after admitting to Pennsylvania media that "she and her sister complied with their mother's request to move from a personal care home to another location," the Allentown Morning Call reported.  

In August, Levine made headlines again when a local TV station "obtained a secret agreement that shows the health secretary allowed a car show near Harrisburg to go on allowing 20,000 people in per day."

"Paperwork obtained by 11 Investigates is clearly marked as a confidential settlement agreement between health secretary Dr. Rachel Levine and the Carlisle Car Show — a huge, outdoor event near Harrisburg," WPIX-TV reported. "The paperwork shows the two sides came to a discrete deal allowing the show in eastern Pennsylvania to go on even though it violated the green phase restrictions that all of Pennsylvania is supposed to be abiding by: 250 people at outdoor events; 25 people at indoor events."

Under the agreement, the car show was allowed to run for four days and admit 20,000 people in per day.

"Governor Wolf has sent a letter to local law enforcement asking them to enforce his mask mandate, yet they're making confidential agreements to allow large congregations of people to come together," said Butler County District Attorney Richard Goldlinger. "They're talking out of both sides of their mouths."

Levine has also repeatedly accused critics of transphobia. In May, Levine interrupted a press conference asking a reporter to not "misgender" him after the reporter addressed him as "sir," Breitbart News reported.

In July, Levine complained of "multiple incidents of LGBTQ harassment and specifically transphobia," KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh reported.

"I want to emphasize, that while these individuals 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," Levine said. "Your actions perpetuate the spirit of intolerance and discrimination against LGBTQ individuals and specifically transgender individuals."