The death of Colin Powell, a decorated general and the first Black secretary of state, is a high-profile reminder that vaccines aren’t perfect and some groups remain vulnerable to COVID-19 despite being fully immunized.
Public health experts say the COVID-19 vaccines provide robust protection against hospitalization and death but do not guarantee it, amid increasing reports of breakthrough infections and worries about waning immunity.
In the past months, doctors have reported that many of the vaccinated patients who are seeing bad outcomes tend to be older adults.
Mr. Powell was 84, and he reportedly suffered from multiple myeloma, a cancer of a type of white blood cell that can make it difficult to fight off infections and build an immune response from vaccination.
“Gen. Powell represented our most vulnerable population in this country,” Dr. Jonathan Reiner, a CNN medical analyst, told the cable news outlet.
The high-profile death kicked off a debate about the merits of the vaccine and its role in forestalling the worst outcomes. Some questioned the vaccines in online commentary only to be chided by those who say it was a dangerous misrepresentation of the overall situation, given Mr. Powell‘s situation.
A published study in July found only 45% of patients with multiple myeloma mounted an adequate immune response from the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines while 22% mounted a partial response. Lower antibody levels were associated with older age in studied patients.
A family statement on Monday did not say much about Mr. Powell‘s bout with COVID-19 but said he was fully vaccinated and treated at Walter Reed National Medical Center.
A longtime aide, Peggy Cifrino, told The New York Times that Mr. Powell received his second dose of the Pfizer vaccine in February and was scheduled for a booster last week when he got sick, so he wasn’t able to get the extra dose.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not track every breakthrough infection, but it has received reports of nearly 25,000 vaccinated people who’ve been hospitalized from COVID-19 and roughly 7,100 who’ve died out of the 187 million people who’ve been fully vaccinated in the U.S.
More than three-quarters of eligible Americans have received at least one dose of a vaccine, and the COVID-19 situation has improved in recent weeks. Daily cases and overall hospitalizations each are down about 20% compared to two weeks ago.
Public health officials remain worried about a winter spike but do not believe it will reach catastrophic levels like last year.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Mr. Powell‘s death is a reminder the country must remain vigilant.
“The sad loss of Colin Powell is another sad indication of the devastating toll that the coronavirus continues to take on our country,” the California Democrat said. “As we pray for the Gen. Powell‘s loved ones, we pray for the families of the nearly 725,000 Americans who have been taken from us by this vicious virus.”