Admiral Rachel L. Levine is serving for the greater good

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Admiral Rachel L. Levine
Admiral Rachel L. Levine

Admiral Rachel L. Levine is the 17th Assistant Secretary for Health for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, nominated by President Joe Biden. Admiral Levine graciously spent time with me to not only shed light on our progress in our fight against COVID-19, but also lend insight into the ways that we unify as a nation and come together after these uncharacteristically difficult few years.

Congratulations on becoming now Admiral Rachel Levine! As Assistant Secretary of Health, can you tell us about what strides we’ve made in the current administration as we continue to overcome COVID-19?

Admiral Rachel L. Levine: Well, COVID-19 continues to be the biggest public health threat that we face as a nation and that we’re facing globally. It is very challenging, but we have made so much progress under President Biden’s leadership. We have administered over 450 million doses of the vaccine. We have significant proportions of the public that are vaccinated, but we have more work to do. We need to continue our efforts on our distribution and administration of our safe and effective vaccination. As you know, I’m a pediatrician in adolescent medicine in my original training. We have the Pfizer vaccine which has been authorized by the FDA and recommended by the CDC for administration to children, ages 5-11. We also have a Pfizer vaccine for teenagers ages 12-17, and of course for adults. We have our other vaccination program for adults and then our booster program. So, we need to work with local state and other federal public health officials, and we need to continue those efforts because that is the way we work through and pass the pandemic.

Albeit a couple of years, it feels like we are still recovering from 2020, and also recovering from the four years prior. In your position, what does bringing a polarized people together look like?

RL: I think the President has really done a fantastic job with that, but there are certainly challenges. We do have, as you said, a polarized country, and the pandemic clearly is such a big challenge to the United States and also globally. I think one of the challenges that we faced with the COVID-19 pandemic has been the politicization of the pandemic and the politicization of our public health measures. We have three tools in our toolbox in order to address the pandemic. We have containment. In order to contain the spread of COVID-19 or really any infectious disease, you have to do extensive testing. Then, those that are positive isolate, you do contact tracing of people who are contacts, and then those people quarantine.

The second tool in the toolbox is mitigation. Working to mitigate the spread of the virus. And that includes, for a respiratory virus like COVID, our mask recommendations. It includes, of course, hand-washing and social distancing.

The third are the medical countermeasures. First of which, which we were discussing, is our safe and effective vaccination program and medicine which includes medicines such as Remdesivir and other medicines used for hospitalized patients. Then we have our monoclonal antibodies for pre-hospitalized patients, but at risk for having severe COVID. Then, we’ll see, but there are pending applications for even oral medications to be used for patients with COVID. So those are the three tools, none of those are political issues, all of those are medical and public health issues. That’s what we’re trying to emphasize in our battle against the virus.

For Anti-vaxxers or those that believe COVID isn’t real, is there a way to calmly harvest dialogue around vaccines with those in our lives who don’t believe in them? What ways can we encourage dialogue as people who don’t necessarily know everything about vaccines and infectious disease?

RL: The misinformation and disinformation that has been spread on social media and other media platforms about our vaccine is very difficult and challenging. There is no quick fix, so I have no magic answer for you. So, I want to go back a bit because there’s a history behind a lot of this misinformation about vaccines. A lot of it goes back to the late 1990s. There was an article by a physician named Dr. Wakefield in the United Kingdom that there was an association between the measles vaccine, an MMR vaccine, and autism. That spread misinformation very significantly in the media and by word of mouth. It turns out that that study was falsified, that data was fabricated. That was shown by the journal that published it, the Lancet, which then was through the article.

Wakefield was expelled from the medical society, and there have been numerous articles since that time proving no association between the measles vaccine and autism. But much of the damage was done. That really caused a lot of concern about vaccines in general, in the United States and another countries. So, for example, in the year 2000, there were no cases of measles in the United States. Then, even as the Physician General and then Secretary of Health of Pennsylvania, we had to deal with some cases of measles. If you remember, there were some significant outbreaks in the west, in California and some other states, where in the end, there were several thousand cases of measles. Measles could be a very serious illness for children that can lead to measles pneumonia or measles encephalitis.

Admiral Rachel L. Levine being sworn in to offic
Admiral Rachel L. Levine being sworn in to office. Photo by Chris Smith at USDHHS

Well, that misinformation has picked up in terms of our safe and effective COVID vaccines, and it is difficult to counter. So, the Surgeon General, Vice Admiral Murthy has been working very hard on a number of different vaccine programs to try to dispel this misinformation and disinformation. He just released a toolkit about how to talk to people about vaccines. And so, you want to rely upon facts, but facts alone don’t always do it. People are coming from a place of fear and we want to counter that fear with facts, with information, and to do it in a way that is non-confrontational, but it’s not always successful. And it continues to be a challenge.

A toolkit would be helpful to calm my own fears. As much of a pro-vaccine person as I am, it’s good to know the facts and to know what’s being put into your body and what it does for us.

RL: There are different types of vaccines. One of the common themes, we inject a piece of the virus in various different ways. We’re not using live virus vaccines; we’re not injecting the live virus. The MRNA vaccines are not live virus vaccines. We’re injecting with a piece of its RNA. This produces an immune response in your body so that if and when you’re exposed to the virus itself, your body can more easily fight it off. That would be vaccines in a simplified nutshell.

While you were Secretary of Health in Pennsylvania, you were resilient and a pillar of strength amid adversity. During your daily Facebook Live health updates, there was a lot of ignorance in the comments. What can you say to our readers, particularly those in our transgender family, who undergo significant adversity in their personal and professional lives?

RL: Right. Well, it is a challenge. In July of 2020, I spoke out against some of the comments in the media and in social media. I did that for a specific reason. I am fine, I am able to compartmentalize and focus on my work and on my public health work. I did at that time, and I remain laser focused on COVID-19, and of course many other public health issues, such as overdoses and health equity, and even the impact of climate change on health. But I felt that the media posts and the social media posts were potentially harming other LGBTQ+ individuals, particularly youth. That is why I pushed back and why I said, “you know, you’re not harming me, but you’re potentially harming other vulnerable people.”

Again, I think people come from a place of fear, fear of what they don’t understand, fear and ignorance. I think that hopefully by educating them, and I hope about my being in these trusted positions, in Pennsylvania and nationally, shows people that LGBTQ+ people are here to serve like everybody else. We are teachers and nurses and doctors and attorneys and businesspeople, we are people in the media, people who run restaurants, name anything, people who stay at home and take care of their kids. We have lives like everyone else. There’s nothing to fear. We’re just here to live our lives and serve for the greater good.

And thank you for that service very much. How can we be a part of the solution? How can we help?

RL: So, let’s talk about COVID-19. I think that we need trusted community voices such as yourself to speak about the importance of keeping a public health focus and following public health measures and recommendations from local, state and federal public health officials. Most importantly, at this time, we need people to get their safe and effective vaccine. We have something called the COVID-19 Community Corps and the Surgeon General’s office works a lot with the corps and you can sign up to be an official Community Corps member. But I think talking with your friends, with your family, with your community, and then through your voice in the media, about the medical and public health measures and our safe and effective vaccine is important.

In terms of some of the other issues we were discussing about health equity, and particularly for LGBTQ+ people again, with your great voice in the media and your website and your publication to be able to talk about LGBTQ+ people, as we were talking about, and to hopefully
dispel fear and educate. I think that will eventually lead to what we’re all looking for, which is equity, diversity, and inclusion.

My last question, one our readers will most enjoy. What does Admiral Levine, a superhero in our community, do to unwind, center, and have fun?

RL: Well, you know, we’re pretty busy and there isn’t a tremendous amount of time, but I like to come home to Pennsylvania and be with my friends and family.

For more information on COVID-19 safety measures and how you can be a part of the solution, please visit WeCanDoThis.hhs.gov to join the COVID-19 Community Corps. For Vice Admiral Murthy’s vaccine toolkit, addressing misinformation, please visit www.hhs.gov and search “Murthy Toolkit.”

Thank you so much to Admiral Rachel Levine for her relentless work in protecting us from the COVID-19 virus.

Johnny Walsh is Out In Jersey’s special features editor. He is a pianist, writer, and entrepreneur who has performed in over 20 states and two countries. Johnny is passionate about human rights, creativity, and the arts, and longs for the sentiment of social justice to flow through his writing.