Assistant Secretary for Health for the United States Department of Health and Human Services Rachel Levine spoke about how HHS is addressing public health issues during an event at the Penn Leonard Davis Institute for Health Economics.
Levine — who is also the head of the US Public Health Service Commissioned Corps — is the first openly transgender person to hold a Senate-confirmed position at the federal level. Levine’s Feb. 6 policy seminar was attended by more than 50 students and faculty.
Levine previously served as Pennsylvania’s Surgeon General and Secretary of Health. She played a role in the state’s mitigation policies during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
During the workshop, Levine discussed the creation of the new Office of Long-Term COVID Research and Practice within HHS and a syphilis task force to address the large increase in syphilis cases in the US. She suggested that one of her top priorities is looking at the impacts of climate change — which she says disproportionately affects communities of color — through a health equity lens.
Levine is also working on policy initiatives to address health equity issues for the LGBTQIA+ community, including an Action Plan on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Data.
“LGBTQIA+ issues have been highly politicized, and we’ve seen a number of extreme laws that specifically target the transgender and non-binary communities,” Levine told seminar attendees, referring to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bills — which have been criticized for being restrictive of the class discussion on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Third-year MD-PhD student and Penn LDI Fellow Aidan Crowley said Penn LDI’s policy-oriented workshops have helped her apply her research to solving real-world questions.
“It’s really helpful to hear from a federal perspective and a top-down thought process on issues that are a high priority for her department,” Crowley said.
Admiral Levine sat down with The Daily Pennsylvanian after the workshop to discuss how various public health issues are affecting college students.
Levine said the most important public health issues facing college students include climate change, reproductive rights — especially in the wake of the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade — and health equity for communities of color and the LGBTQ+ community. . She emphasized the responsibility of young people to catalyze change on these issues.
“Advocacy doesn’t just happen in Washington… Advocacy at the local and state level is just as important — if not more so —,” Levine said.
Levine also discussed mental health issues on college campuses, suggesting that the public health approach is to look at the drivers of mental health challenges young people are facing, such as factors that lead to suicide or addiction.
Levine also spoke about the importance of Narcan, a naloxone product, which is the most common treatment for opioid overdoses. As of 2023, it was approved for over-the-counter use, a change described by Wellness at Penn and MERT as “a positive step.” Penn MERT offers regular training sessions on how to properly use Narcan.
Levine said Naloxone should be in dorms, restaurants and elsewhere around campus, adding that she has been working with Penn Medicine physician Bonnie Milas to make Naloxone more accessible on campus.
While Levine emphasized the importance of treatment, recovery and prevention efforts for addiction, she said Naloxone remains a critical tool to combat the overdose crisis.
“I’ve always said it’s impossible for someone to get treatment and recovery if they’re dead,” Levine said.
HHS is currently protecting fentanyl and xylazine test strips and syringe service programs like Prevention Point Philadelphia, according to Levine.
Levine also spoke about COVID-19, saying that — although the acute phase of COVID-19 is over — the infection rate and death rate are still very high. She recommended that the best thing people can do is get a vaccine against COVID-19, describing the latest update as “very safe and very effective.”
Levine concluded by encouraging students who are interested in the medical or public health fields to consider the US Public Health Service Commissioned Corps—a team of uniformed officers who work in medicine and public health to benefit underserved communities in the whole country.