Powell's death a 'sobering reminder' of coronavirus's continued risks

Powell's death a 'sobering reminder' of coronavirus's continued risks
© Greg Nash

Former Secretary of State Colin PowellColin PowellDefense & National Security — Biden marks Veterans Day Biden marks Veterans Day at Arlington National Cemetery Overnight Defense & National Security — Washington gathers for Colin Powell's funeral MORE’s death from COVID-19 complications signifies the latest wake-up call in the United States’s extended battle against the virus, demonstrating the continued risk the pandemic poses to American lives.  

The fully vaccinated former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff became one of the approximately 1,500 people on average dying daily due to the virus, and he suffered from multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer that weakens the body’s ability to protect against infections.

Public health experts emphasized that his “breakthrough” death represents a rarity, as the vast majority of COVID-19 fatalities occur among the unvaccinated, and that his cancer diagnosis and age put him at greater risk of serious illness.

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But Powell’s death serves as a warning that COVID-19 still endangers American lives as approximately 65 million eligible Americans have yet to get vaccinated, leaving room for increased transmission. 

“It’s a sobering reminder of how serious COVID is,” Amber D’Souza, a professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said.

“These breakthrough infections, especially one resulting in death in such a prominent person, is a somber reminder to all of us that reducing risk is not the same as eliminating risk,” she added. 

With the COVID-19 vaccines not being 100 percent effective and coronavirus prominent across the nation, public health experts have warned that breakthrough cases, hospitalizations and deaths among the fully vaccinated, while rare, will happen.

The U.S. has seen about 7,000 breakthrough deaths, with more than 6,000 older than 65, out of the 187 million vaccinated Americans, tweeted Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, citing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data. 

“Well over” 90 percent of COVID-19 patients at hospitals and intensive care units have been unvaccinated, D’Souza said. But among that small number of fully vaccinated patients with breakthrough cases, many have been 75 and older with multiple comorbidities.  

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Powell’s family announced the 84-year-old’s death in a statement Monday morning, saying he was fully vaccinated without disclosing when he tested positive, when he received his vaccination and whether he received an additional dose.  

Peggy Cifrino, Powell’s longtime aide, told media outlets that the former secretary was treated for multiple myeloma, which can lead to immunosuppression. 

Health officials had called on immunocompromised people to continue to take precautions to prevent breakthrough infections, and in August, federal agencies recommended that immunocompromised Pfizer and Moderna recipients, including those with multiple myeloma, get a third dose.  

The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society praised the decision to allow additional doses for those with blood cancers, noting that their study found 1 in 4 patients failed to produce an adequate level of antibodies following two doses of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine, indicating more protection was needed.  

Studies have repeatedly shown that vaccination greatly reduces the risk of hospitalization and death, with CDC data through August showing the unvaccinated were 11 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than those who are fully vaccinated.  

Still, narratives suggesting Powell’s death showed waning efficacy of the vaccines appeared online, including from Fox News anchor John Roberts, who said in a deleted tweet that his passing “raises new concerns about how effective vaccines are long-term.” After facing backlash, Roberts said he removed his post because “many people interpreted it as anti-vax.” 

Experts, including Jaimie Meyer, an infectious diseases physician and associate professor at the Yale School of Medicine, said it’s important to consider the “nuance” of Powell’s case involving his age and illness, instead of solely blaming the vaccine.  

“There’s that nuance there that impacts how he might have responded or not to a vaccine,” she said.  

Such breakthrough infections and deaths show that vaccines “don’t make you bulletproof” or “completely resistant to the virus,” said James McDeavitt, the executive vice president and dean of clinical affairs at the Baylor College of Medicine. 

“If you’re at risk, if you’re elderly, if you’ve got severe medical conditions, particularly those that may cause you to be immunosuppressed, then I think you still need to be careful,” he said. 

The millions of unvaccinated people in the U.S. allow the COVID-19 virus to still be able to spread in the country, particularly in communities with lower vaccination rates. 

A majority of counties in the U.S. have less than 50 percent of their total population with at least one dose, according to CDC data, and almost a quarter of counties have less than 40 percent with at least one shot.

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Fifteen states still have less than half their total population fully vaccinated, according to data from The New York Times, while two states, Idaho and West Virginia, have yet to see half their population get at least one shot.  

Nationally, 96 percent of the 65 and older population has gotten at least one dose, but younger groups have seen lower vaccination rates, with 75 percent of adults younger than 65 receiving at least one shot.  

Additionally, children younger than 12 cannot get vaccinated yet, meaning many unvaccinated school-age children are at risk of contracting or transmitting the virus to other vulnerable people in their lives.  

“Being safe, getting vaccinated helps to protect you, but I think more importantly it helps to protect the most vulnerable in our community,” McDeavitt of Baylor College of Medicine said. “And sadly, General Powell was one of those vulnerable people.”