News Analysis Jan 19, 2021 1:37 PM EST

Biden's HHS pick defended policy of returning COVID patients to nursing homes saying 'the virus was already there'

Joe Biden touts this as an historic pick because Levine is a gender-nonconforming male who identifies as transgender. Levine defended her policy of sending elderly patients back to nursing homes after COVID treatment.

Biden's HHS pick defended policy of returning COVID patients to nursing homes saying 'the virus was already there'
Libby Emmons Brooklyn, NY
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Incoming President Joe Biden's pick for Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services came under fire in her home state of Pennsylvania for routinely sending COVID-positive patients back to nursing homes, where they spread the illness.

"She is a historic and deeply qualified choice to help lead our administration's health efforts," Biden said.

Dr. Rachel Levine, a gender-nonconforming male who identifies as transgender and uses female pronouns, defended her policy of sending elderly patients back to their nursing homes after receiving treatment.

In Levine's post as Department of Health Secretary for Pennsylvania, Levine said "They contracted the virus in the facility. So it doesn't mean they were bringing it to the facility. The virus was already there."

However, for State Senator Doug Mastriano, this was not a good explanation for why COVID patients were returned to nursing homes to infect more people, and he called for Levine's resignation on May 11.

In May, Levine pulled her own mother out of a nursing home rather than leave her to be subjected to her own policies. "My mother requested and my sister and I as her children comply to move her to another location," Levine said at a press conference. "During the COVID-19 outbreak. My mother is 95 years old. She is very intelligent and more than competent to make her own decisions." This was not an option afforded to the 10,022 nursing home residents in the state who died from the virus.

Mastriano said "These failings are compounded by being complicit in the virus spreading through our elder care homes, triggered by unscientific and illogical directives, forcing them to readmit COVID-19 patients."

Mastriano believed that it was Levine's order that led to more COVID deaths in Pennsylvania nursing homes. "Let me state this clearly," he said, "this order by Secretary Levine is responsible for the deaths of approximately 2,500 of our citizens, and displays the gross incompetence of someone unfit for office. The bottom line is Secretary Levine has failed to protect our most vulnerable population."

Biden, who appears to be more concerned with Levine's identity as transgender, said of the pick "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.

Many of the news outlets reporting on Biden's pick were far more concerned about Levine's status as a gender-nonconforming male who identifies as transgender and uses female pronouns than Levine's ghastly record in Pennsylvania. The Washington Post wrote "Biden selects transgender doctor, Rachel Levine, as assistant health secretary." Politico said "Biden picks transgender woman as assistant health secretary."

Levine was appointed by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf in 2017, making Levine, a pediatrician, one of the few gender-nonconforming males who identifies as transgender and uses female pronouns to hold a position of this nature in the US. She has been touted as the "face" of Pennsylvania's COVID response.

US Representatives Fred Keller and Scott Perry sent a letter to Levine demanding that nursing homes be a higher priority. Their letter cited Levine's guidance COVID patients be returned to their nursing homes. That letter, of March 18, said that "Nursing care facilities must continue to accept new admissions and receive readmissions for current residents who have been discharged from the hospital who are stable to alleviate the increasing burden in the acute care setting. This may include stable patients who have had the COVID-19 virus."

But for Reps. Keller and Perry, this was not an adequate solution, as it furthered the spread of the virus among the state's most vulnerable residents. They wrote: "We respectfully request that the PA DOH work with the governor’s office to do everything in your power to protect our seniors living in these facilities from further harm. Specifically, we urge Pennsylvania to change the requirement that long-term care facilities admit/readmit COVID-19 patients and provide flexibility for facilities to make their own determination about whether to admit/readmit COVID-19 patients on a case-by-case basis, reflecting the unique resources and capabilities at each facility."

They also debunked Levine's claim that the actions were undertaken per guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services. "We are naturally confused about where the state is getting its information, why the rationale for these policies continued to change over time, and why this problem seems to be unique to Pennsylvania," they wrote.

Levine contended that there just weren't any options other than sending COVID patients back to their nursing homes to infect others after being released from the hospital, specifically as regards who would pay for their accommodations.

"We were very concerned at that time about patients in the hospital and overwhelming our hospitals, so if they just stayed in the hospital," Levine said. "First of all, you can't just do that in terms of payment. But also we wouldn't have throughput through the hospital. There are some facilities, nursing home conglomerates, that have a number of different facilities and are able to congregate people into different wings. Very small facilities can't really do that. We worked with every facility to do the very best we can to protect everyone in the facility."

Pennsylvania has seen 10,022 deaths in nursing homes, which is more than half of their total COVID death count of 19,390.

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