Since Dr. Rachel Levine was sworn in as a four-star admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps last week, legacy media outlets have erupted in praise of America’s first transgender female admiral. Conservative lawmakers and media personalities quickly reacted, with Representative Jim Banks taking up the culture-war mantle and earning a Twitter suspension in the process.
Those of us in Pennsylvania, meanwhile, have our own practical reasons to be skeptical of Levine’s promotion.
Here we remember that Levine’s tenure as the state’s health secretary under Governor Tom Wolf leaves much to be answered for. Yet no one — not Congress, the president, or the media — has addressed the concerns hanging over thousands of Pennsylvania families.
Perhaps the most important of those concerns is due to the mandate, imposed by Levine, that seniors infected with COVID-19 be readmitted to nursing homes.
In June 2020, Levine blamed the mandate on a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention directive that nursing homes “should admit any individuals that they would normally admit to their facility, including individuals from hospitals where a case of COVID-19 was/is present.”
Most major media outlets were happy to accept this explanation without question.
But the CDC had qualified that recommendation by saying that “a nursing home can accept a resident” with COVID-19 “as long as the facility can follow CDC guidance for Transmission-Based Precautions.”
Levine’s order, on the other hand, mandated that all nursing-care facilities “must” accept individuals “who have had the Covid-19 virus.” There was no mention of each facility’s capability to deal with infectious patients.
The results were as plain as they are painful. By the time the Senate confirmed Levine’s nomination to be the assistant U.S. secretary of health, Pennsylvania had surpassed 12,500 nursing-home deaths and was the largest state where nursing-home and care-facility deaths account for over 50 percent of statewide COVID fatalities.
The nursing-home order was issued in March 2020. Yet Pennsylvanians were shocked to learn in May that Levine’s 95-year-old mother had been moved out of a nursing home and into a hotel. Here’s the explanation the then–health secretary offered:
My mother requested, and my sister and I as her children complied to move her to another location during the Covid-19 outbreak . . . . My mother is 95 years old. She is very intelligent and more than competent to make her own decisions.
If only other Pennsylvanians had been afforded the same opportunity. That they weren’t makes this seem like yet another instance of a political insider abusing political power for personal advantage.
Unfortunately, the lives lost in nursing homes are not the extent of the pain caused to Pennsylvanians on Levine’s watch. The state is still recovering from the work of Levine’s health department with Governor Wolf to close all “nonessential businesses” in the spring of 2020.
Since Wolf’s order was based on the state’s disease-prevention-and-control law, the administration took cues about what businesses to close from the Pennsylvania DOH. The result was a disaster for the commonwealth’s small and main-street businesses while massive corporations such as Walmart and Amazon raked in record sales.
A few local journalists attempted to wrench scientific justification for the shutdown list from Levine’s DOH. There was no response.
And as Levine prepared to depart for D.C., the state’s new acting health secretary inherited a panic over inept vaccine distribution. Because of non-transparent distribution policies, Pennsylvania was near the bottom nationally in terms of getting vaccines into arms by February, an additional harm to nursing homes.
Surprisingly, a primarily liberal group of public officials in the Philadelphia metropolitan area embarked on a campaign of criticism of the Wolf administration. “I’ve been doing this for over two decades,” state senator Tony Williams, a Philadelphia Democrat, said at a press conference. “And this is the first time that I can recall our entire delegation — that means federal, state, local, Democrat and Republican — coming together all on one issue — the first time. Which should suggest to those listening: there’s a problem. And the problem is now a crisis.”
A few weeks later, Levine faced a U.S. Senate vote for nomination to be assistant U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Before the vote, Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania said that Levine “has not earned a promotion to help lead the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.”
What Senator Toomey said then is just as true now, as Levine puts on four stars. Rachel Levine is not qualified for this position. A blatant disregard for this record of failure is unacceptable. This clear case of ideology over reality is something many thousands of Pennsylvanians will remember.
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