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The Penn Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics hosted a policy seminar with Admiral Rachel Levine, the U.S. Assistant Secretary for Health, on Feb. 6 (Photo from U.S. Department of Health and Human Services). 

Assistant Secretary for Health for the United States Department of Health and Human Services Rachel Levine spoke on how HHS is tackling public health issues during an event at the Penn Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics.

Levine — who is also the head of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps — is the first openly transgender person to hold a Senate-confirmed position at the federal level. Levine's policy seminar on Feb. 6 was attended by more than 50 students and faculty.

Levine previously served as Pennsylvania’s Physician General and Secretary for Health. She played a role in the state's mitigation policies during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the seminar, Levine discussed the establishment of the new Office of Long COVID Research and Practice within HHS and a syphilis task force to address the recent large increase in syphilis cases in the U.S. 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 issues of health equity for the LGBTQIA+ community, including a Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Data Action Plan.

“LGBTQIA+ issues have been very politicized, and we’ve seen a rash of extreme laws particularly targeting the transgender and non-binary communities,” Levine told seminar attendees, referencing Florida's “Don’t Say Gay” bills — which have been criticized for limiting classroom discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Third-year MD-PhD student and Penn LDI Associate Fellow Aidan Crowley said that Penn LDI’s policy-oriented seminars 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 about the issues that are high-priority for her department,” Crowley said.

Admiral Levine sat down with The Daily Pennsylvanian after the seminar to discuss how various public health issues are impacting college students.

Levine said that the most significant public health issues facing college students include climate change, reproductive rights — particularly 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 — if not more — important,” 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 that 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 that Naloxone should be in dorms, restaurants, and elsewhere around campus, adding that she has worked 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 that Naloxone remains a critical tool for fighting the overdose crisis.

“I’ve always said that it’s impossible for someone to get into treatment and recovery if they are dead,” Levine said.

The HHS is currently advocating for fentanyl and xylazine test strips and syringe service programs such as Prevention Point Philadelphia, according to Levine.

Levine also spoke about COVID-19, saying that — although the acute phase of COVID-19 is over — infection rates and death rates are still too high. She recommended that the best thing people can do is to get a COVID-19 vaccination, describing the recent update as “very safe and very effective.”

Levine concluded by encouraging students who are interested in the medical or public health field to consider the Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service — a team of uniformed officers who work in medicine and public health to benefit undeserved communities throughout the nation.