The death of storied general and statesman Colin Powell from complications related to COVID-19 should not lead to any concerns about the efficacy of the coronavirus vaccines, according to experts and government officials.
The fact remains that unvaccinated people are 11 times more likely to die than those who have been vaccinated against COVID-19.
“Please don’t let the death of an American icon become fodder for anti-vax forces that are putting untold millions in danger,” wrote Department of Health and Human Services adviser Ian Sams on Twitter. “Vaccines work. They prevent bad outcomes. They (like all vaccines) are not 100%, especially among older people with underlying/complicating health issues.”
Powell, who served as secretary of state during the George W. Bush administration and as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff before that, died Monday at age 84.
Crucially, Powell suffered from a blood cancer known as multiple myeloma — precisely the kind of “immunocompromised” condition that experts have said from the start could lead to lower vaccine efficacy. In fact, the vaccines seemed to work especially poorly in patients afflicted with that type of cancer, even after a booster shot. (Powell also suffered from Parkinson’s disease, a neurodegenerative condition.)
Powell’s wife, Alma, had also reportedly contracted the coronavirus but was able to fight off the ensuing COVID-19 illness successfully.
Still, the mere news that a high-profile figure like Powell had died after being fully vaccinated is bound to fuel misinformation about the pandemic. Alex Berenson, a former New York Times journalist widely criticized (and banished from Twitter) for voicing unsound views, used the news to mock the efficacy of vaccines on his Substack channel.
And John Roberts, a correspondent for Fox News — whose most prominent hosts have routinely spread vaccine misinformation — wrote on Twitter that Powell’s death “raises new concerns about how effective vaccines are long-term.” Roberts deleted the tweet.
Medical professionals insist that worries about breakthrough deaths are unfounded and are being exaggerated by some media reports.
“The news reports, in saying that General Powell was vaccinated, should also mention that he had multiple myeloma. Individuals who are older, with chronic medical conditions (especially immunocompromised) are at much greater risk for adverse outcomes,” wrote Dr. Leana Wen, the former Baltimore health commissioner and a professor of emergency medicine at George Washington University, in an email to Yahoo News.
“We should also be clear that the vaccines are very protective, but virtually nothing in medicine is 100%,” Wen wrote. “That doesn’t mean vaccines don’t work, but rather that we have to put the benefit of vaccination into perspective.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost 190 million people in the United States have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. Of those people, 1,074 under the age of 65 have died from COVID-19. There have been 6,104 COVID-19 deaths of people 65 or older who had been vaccinated. Among the breakthrough coronavirus deaths tracked by the CDC were 951 people who did not show symptoms of COVID-19 and appear to have died from another cause.
“I don’t really have a sense yet if breakthrough deaths are up more recently because of waning vaccine immunity, [especially] given that 3rd mRNA immunizations should bump up immunity again,” tweeted Dr. Peter Hotez, a vaccine expert at Baylor College of Medicine, alluding to the Pfizer booster shots that have recently been authorized for some groups.
More people are set to receive boosters in the coming weeks and months, as federal regulators are expected to approve shots for recipients of the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.
The notion of breakthrough infections has been a concern since an outbreak in Provincetown, Mass., during the July 4 holiday weekend. Although the resort town boasted an exceptionally high vaccination rate, a cluster of 1,000 cases emerged. But despite the fear engendered by the outbreak, only seven of the Provincetown cases required hospitalizations, and no deaths were reported.