Almost immediately after President Joe Biden’s pick for assistant health secretary, Dr. Rachel Levine, was announced, right-wing media quickly began attacking her. In addition to anti-trans bigotry, conservative criticism of Levine — who would be the first openly transgender federal official confirmed by the U.S. Senate — also included a previously debunked lie about her recent service as Pennsylvania health secretary during the COVID-19 pandemic and the circumstances by which her mother left a personal care home.
Contrary to the false claims, Rachel Levine followed federal guidance when she pursued the safe readmittance of elderly residents who had tested positive for the coronavirus back into their nursing homes, and she did not simultaneously move her mother out of one.
Praised for her medical expertise and repeatedly confirmed to increasingly prestigious positions by a Republican-controlled Pennsylvania legislature, Levine has been the public face and lead administrator of the state’s response to the coronavirus crisis. One of the most pressing problems she, like other states’ health officials, had to tackle early in the pandemic was how to keep nursing home residents safe as the coronavirus ravaged the elderly.
Similar to California, New Jersey, and New York, Pennsylvania had to determine how to readmit nursing home residents who had contracted COVID-19 back to their facilities when they no longer needed acute care. In addition to freeing up badly needed hospital beds, readmittance is understood to be a fundamental point of decency — preventing discrimination against older persons whose last and only home might be the nursing home they are trying to return to.
As Levine explained last June, this policy was in accordance with guidance from both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“newly admitted and readmitted residents with COVID-19 who have met criteria for discontinuation of Transmission-Based Precautions can go to a regular unit”) and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (“the goal is to ‘allow hospitals to reserve beds for the most severely ill patients by discharging those who are less severely ill to skilled nursing facilities’”). Accordingly, states including Pennsylvania prohibited homes from denying readmittance if the returning and remaining residents could be cared for safely through cohorting and other careful public health protocols.
Even though Levine approached this public health challenge with both federal and state best practices, she was attacked by the right-wing for her leadership of the state’s COVID-19 response, a smear campaign that quickly turned anti-trans. The conservative criticism also dragged in Levine’s family, with the false suggestion that the Pennsylvania health secretary was hypocritical in supporting readmittance when her own mother had recently left a personal care home. But as Levine explained, personal care homes are not nursing homes, they are under the authority of a different agency outside of her purview, and her mother left the facility at her own request and volition. Dr. Levine added, “She is very intelligent and more than competent to make her own decisions.”
Nevertheless, right-wing media are attempting to resuscitate this smear campaign, barely concealing their anti-trans agenda.
When her nomination was announced, conservative pundit Ben Shapiro misgendered Levine in his tweet, saying, “Cons: Levine shipped covid-positive patients back into nursing homes, and removed mom from a nursing home at the same time Pros: Levine is a biological man who believes he is a woman.” Misgendering, or referring to a trans person by a different gender than the one they identify with, is a form of harassment that dehumanizes trans people. Other right-wing media trolls and outlets repeated the lie about Levine’s supposed hypocrisy throughout the day, culminating with Fox News’ Tucker Carlson. Carlson is an anti-trans extremist who regularly dehumanizes and spreads lies about trans people.
Fresh off of mangling civil rights precedent in a backward attack on Kristen Clarke, Biden’s nominee to lead the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, Carlson repeated the false claim that Levine “moved her 95-year-old mother out of a nursing home.” And while admitting he didn’t understand the rationale behind Pennsylvania’s readmittance policy (“because that makes them easier to test or something”), the Fox News host still decided that Levine, a former chief resident at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York and a top doctor at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, was “completely incompetent.”
Carlson also falsely referred to Levine’s gender as her “sexual orientation or sex life,” saying, “This is like the perfect encapsulation of everything I despise about neoliberalism. You're supposed to be thrilled by this person's sexual orientation or sex life or whatever, her personal life.” He concluded with a rant that Levine’s nomination was “an effort to see how big a middle finger can we wag in the face of the country. We’re going to nominate someone who is not only unqualified, but is so far outside the lines of qualification. I mean, would you hire someone like that, who had done something — moved her own mother out while putting everyone else in — would you hire that person for a health-related job? I mean, for real.”
There will be many analyses of what went wrong and right in the nation’s collective failure to sufficiently protect its elderly from COVID-19, but it is absurd to lay the blame at the feet of Levine, who by most accounts has had a career of exceptional public service as both a pediatrician and state official. But right-wing media have targeted previous Democratic nominees in the past with anti-LGBTQ attacks and the sort of demonstrable lies that frequently accompany such discrimination. It appears this playbook has been dusted off for partisan warfare against Levine.