Gus Kenworthy
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Dr. Rachel Levine on Helping Meet President Biden's COVID Vaccine Goal

Dr Rachel Levine

June is all hands on deck for President Joe Biden's administration as it works to meet the president’s goal of getting 70 percent of American adults at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose by July 4. And as Biden himself might say, “Folks, that’s a lot of work.”

Biden has deemed this the National Month of Action, and he and his administration will seek to mobilize national organizations, local government leaders, community-based and faith-based partners, businesses, employers, social media influencers, celebrities, athletes, colleges, young people, and thousands of volunteers, all working together to meet that magic number of 70 percent.

Since Biden was inaugurated in January, the U.S. has made strides in its fight against the pandemic. According to the administration, 63 percent of adult Americans have gotten vaccinated, including 73 percent of Americans aged 40 and over, and COVID-19 cases and deaths have declined as a result — cases are down over 90 percent and deaths are down over 85 percent since January 20.

Twelve states have already given at least one shot to 70 percent of adults, and more than 28 states and D.C. have fully vaccinated 50 percent or more of their adult populations, but millions of Americans still need protection against the virus.

For that reason, I spoke with an LGBTQ+ barrier-breaker, Dr. Rachel Levine, assistant secretary for health at the Health and Human Services Department and the highest-ranking transgender person ever in the U.S. Government. President Biden nominated her for the post shortly before his inauguration, and she was confirmed by the Senate in March. Previously, she had been Pennsylvania’s secretary of health.

I asked her why this unprecedented and aggressive push by the administration is so important. “We are winning the battle against the virus, but it’s imperative that we make sure to vaccinate as many people as possible,” Levine said during a phone call Wednesday. “We need to do all we can to meet the president’s mark, and that includes vaccinating everyone 12 years of age and older.”

Levine said that the main message the administration is trying to send is that the vaccines are “safe, effective, and vitally important in stopping the virus.”

When I asked Levine why it’s crucial that LGBTQ+ people in particular get vaccinated, she pointed me to the Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center in her home state of Pennsylvania, which says that LGBTQ+ people are at particular risk for COVID-19 as a result of several factors, including higher rates of tobacco use than the general population and higher rates of HIV and cancer, both of which compromise the immune system, making us more vulnerable to infection.

“We have been working on getting more specific data about the LGBTQ community and the virus,” Levine explained. “Unfortunately, the previous administration decimated so much of the data, and we’re working hard to build that back.”

Will Levine be busy during Pride Month to help get the vaccine message across? “Yes, I have many media events scheduled throughout the month, and a lot of it will be virtual still, but we will be out and talking about this month of action and our goal,” she said. “It’s reassuring to know that this year during Pride Month we have a president and an administration that has 100 percent support for the LGBTQ community.”

There have been news reports for the last few days about the emergence of the highly contagious Delta strain of the virus and its rise here in the U.S. I asked Levine if the vaccines are effective against this emerging strain. “There is every reason to think that they are,” she said. “All of the data points indicate that the vaccine is effective, and we are keeping a close eye on it. At the moment, it’s been reported in 16 countries, including the U.S., where it represents 6 percent of the cases. The fact that it is more transmissible is just another reason that people shouldn’t get complacent about the vaccine.”

Vice President Kamala Harris will be leading a nationwide tour to energize and mobilize grassroots vaccine education and outreach efforts, Levine noted. The vice president’s travel will be anchored in the South as a way to combat misinformation that seems so prevalent in that region’s red states.

Finally, Dr. Anthony Fauci suggested Tuesday that if we don’t meet the 70 percent target, we run the risk of encountering another surge of the virus in the fall. Does Levine agree with that assessment? “I am generally a very positive and optimistic person, so I do believe we will make the president’s goal,” she said. “It’s going to take Dr. Fauci, Dr. [Rochelle] Walensky, Dr. [Francis] Collins, Dr. [Marcella] Nunez-Smith, and all of us in this administration to do all that we can to make sure that Americans get the message that the vaccine is safe, effective, and there’s no time like the present to get it now.”

John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.

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