Dr. John Porter’s schedule for next week is filling up fast. On Tuesday, he’ll speak with a group from the Linkages program. Later in the week, it will be with a group of teachers. There likely will be time for a group of clergy, too.
And each conversation will start the same way: You have every right to be concerned — and skeptical — about the vaccines for COVID-19. He was, too. But he now feels they are safe for the Black and brown community.
Porter, the director of the Center for Trauma Services at Cooper University Health Care in Camden, feels these are important conversations to have. And that the only way to have them is to address the underlying concerns right from the start.
“The reason why I’ve been talking to people is because the first statement Black people often say is, ‘I don’t trust U.S. medicine,’” Porter said. “And, when it’s not a Black person talking, the person doesn’t believe them.
“But, when I say, ‘I understand, I agree with you, I didn’t trust it either’ — when they have a doctor saying that he didn’t trust it and that he waited for more information — that carries so much more weight.”
That’s why Porter, who earned his medical degree at Johns Hopkins University, said he has made it his mission to reach out to Black and brown communities.
“It’s like it’s my second job,” he said.
But before he took it on, Porter said he needed to be convinced first.
“There is a longstanding fear in the Black community — and it’s justified — that U.S. medicine has not been kind to us,” Porter said. “Those things are well documented, both in OB/GYN and Tuskegee, and with other vaccines.”
These are not just historical footnotes. Porter points out that some officials — in 2020 — suggested that the COVID-19 vaccines be tested on “children in Africa.”
He was horrified by the comments.
And, when the first vaccines, from Pfizer and Moderna, were introduced, Porter said he was stunned by how little testing had been done with underserved communities.
“When I looked at the actual study from Pfizer for the first approval, there were only 800 Black people out of the 20,000 that got the vaccine,” he said.
It made him wonder.
“When I looked at the disproportionate numbers of Black people that were actually getting COVID, and the equally disproportionate number of Black people that were dying from COVID, I was thinking, ‘Is it just because of systemic racism and access to care — or could it be that Black people are responding differently?’” he said. “And if that would be the case, then maybe Black people would respond to the vaccine differently, even if it was done equitably.”
Porter said he needed to be convinced.
“I chose to wait until the numbers increased,” he said. “Once the numbers got into the millions — and the percentage of people of color who had received the vaccine was higher — I felt comfortable that it was safe.”
Porter’s first talk happened within the walls of Cooper.
“There are people of color in this hospital that had concerns,” he said. “So, I spoke to them. And then they went back and told their church leaders and community leaders. Now, I get asked to speak all over the place.
“I’ve gone to several apartment buildings in Camden. I’ve spoken to clergy groups. I spoke with Gabriel Rodriguez, the new police chief in Camden, who is the first Hispanic in that role. I speak to schools. Every time I speak, I get asked to speak to others.”
He also is one of handful of Cooper officials to make a video encouraging vaccinations.
Porter said he’s happy to do it. It means more people are getting the word on the vaccine. And, he said, it ultimately means more people of color are getting vaccinated.
“Every time I talk, the person who has invited me to speak says that, within the next day, they have a 30% to 40% increase in the number of people who actually sign up to get the vaccine,” he said.
It’s easy to see that Porter is having a tremendous impact on getting the vaccine distributed to residents of color in Camden and in underserved communities across the state.
Still, one big question remains: Can the success and safety of the COVID-19 vaccines change the perception of U.S. medicine in those communities?
Porter is hopeful — but not yet convinced.
“I would hope that, with all the things that they’re doing to try to get access to be equal and equitable for people of color, that maybe this could be a turning point,” he said. “If these efforts can help gain the trust of people of color, then it truly will be a watershed event.”