Austin Porter, DrPH, MPH, Honored by Arkansas Minority Health Commission

By Kev' Moye

For his dedication, the Arkansas Minority Health Commission honored Porter with the Governor’s Health Policy award during its 2022 Biennial Health Summit.

The awardee is chosen by the governor and reflects someone who has had a tremendous impact on the health and healthcare of minority Arkansans through public policy.

“I was overwhelmed with emotions when I got the award,” Porter said. “I didn’t go into this work and dedicate so much time to this cause for recognition. I have a genuine love for helping people.

“There are so many qualified people who are equally worthy of the accolade. It was truly humbling.”

Porter remembers when he first realized the hysteria caused by COVID-19. It’s an experience that reflected the importance of the community having access to correct info.

“In 2020, when Arkansas had its first confirmed COVID-19 case, I decided to join the Arkansas Department of Health (ADH) pandemic response team after speaking with the epidemiologist branch chief,” Porter said. “She asked if I could help answer the phones as they were getting a ton of calls from people about the virus. I agreed to it.

“Quickly, I realized how crazy things had become. Some of the calls I got were unreal. A lot of people were paranoid, or angry at someone, or thought they had all the answers to a situation not even highly experienced epidemiologists knew much about.”

Porter said he didn’t last long answering phone calls.

“Being in that call center answering questions and listening to rants was not an ideal situation for me,” he said with a laugh. “I knew I had to find a different way to help people learn what they should and shouldn’t do in relation to COVID-19.”

Eventually, Porter joined a team of ADH epidemiologists  that created the COVID-19 statewide database and produced reports for Nate Smith, M.D., the department’s then-secretary. Smith used the reports to do presentations during Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s COVID-19 press conferences.

Additionally, Porter was appointed to the Governor’s Post-Peak Medical Advisory Committee. The group created health strategies for Arkansas communities after the peak of a COVID-19 surge. Porter was also named the chair of the Governor’s COVID-19 Technical Advisory Board, which evaluated technical options to create convenient ways to conduct COVID-19 testing and contact tracing.

Porter was equally engaged on a community, grassroots level in helping Arkansans.

“The minority populations were getting hit hard,” he said. “Once I saw the data which detailed what was happening with minorities and COVID, that’s when I focused on working with various organizations to get the word out and educate people.”

One of Porter’s biggest outreach opportunities came from 96.5 The Box, a Little Rock Hip Hop and R&B radio station. Every Friday he would go to the station to do on-air COVID-19 reports.

Also, Porter is a member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc. The organization’s membership is primarily Black. Porter often led the charge to get COVID-19 info to his fraternity brothers.

“Through my fraternity, I was able to report information to my frat brothers and they would then go and give the info to their families, co-workers and churches,” he said. “With my frat, we’re talking about people from 18 years old to members who are senior citizens. So that’s a wide range of individuals I was able to get the info to.”

Providing good information was key.

“There was so much misinformation out there. I simply collaborated with people and groups who wanted to do their best to counteract the bad info that was floating around.”

Few topics were more polarizing than whether or not to take the vaccine. A good number of Arkansans, especially African Americans, did not trust the vaccine. People had a variety of reasons for their apprehension, but the Tuskegee Syphilis Study is what Porter heard about regularly. During the 40-year project, the government deceived hundreds of Black men in Macon County, Alabama, by withholding effective treatment for syphilis.

“The Tuskegee situation happened decades ago, but that mistrust still exists today,” he said. “We have to acknowledge the mistrust in the medical system, and why it exists. But we must also look at all the great medical professionals who do a standup job at getting people the help that they need.”

The honest, practical approach is what Porter used to encourage minorities to get vaccinated.

“You must connect with people and acknowledge the wrongs,” he said. “I always made it clear that we’d much rather take the vaccine that will keep us from getting very sick, than to take the chance and get COVID-19 without being vaccinated. I told people who were leery that if they were vaccinated and caught COVID, their chances of severe illness is drastically reduced compared to if they weren’t vaccinated.”

Porter appreciates the health commission’s recognition. But the COVID-19 outreach he’s done in the past, and will do in the future, is about his passion for community service.

“I love to make a difference in people’s lives,” he said. “That’s what this is all about.”



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