Why Colin Powell’s death after COVID-19 vaccination is rare

Obit Powell
Posted at 11:21 AM, Oct 19, 2021

WASHINGTON, D.C. — With the death of former Secretary of State Colin Powell making headlines, doctors are reminding us how rare the general’s COVID-19 complications were as a fully vaccinated American.

Powell's family shared in a Facebook post on Monday that the 84-year-old’s death was due to COVID-19 complications, and that it was a breakthrough infection.

“What we know about Gen. Powell is that he's 84 years old and any COVID case in someone that old is going to be something that could be serious,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “And it doesn't take away the fact that when you look at the bulk of the people who are dying from COVID, they are not vaccinated and, although some fully vaccinated people die, it is a very, very rare occurrence. And it's something that doesn't change the value of this vaccine and I think it's sometimes hard when someone very prominent dies like this, because it does garner a lot of headlines, but I think it's important to not lose sight of the big picture.”

The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows the risk of an unvaccinated adult dying of COVID-19 is 11 times higher than an adult who is fully vaccinated. An unvaccinated person is also six times more likely to test positive for the virus, and 19 times more likely to end up in the hospital.

Additionally, both CNN and NBC News report that Powell was suffering from multiple myeloma, a form of cancer that affects white blood cells. White blood cells are an essential part of the body's immune system, which fights off diseases or viruses when they enter the body. Because he was suffering from a decreased immune system, Powell was part of the 3% of the adult population in the U.S. who the CDC classifies as "immunocompromised."

It’s also important to remember that the vaccines were created based on the strain that was spreading most this time last year.

With transmission rates still high among unvaccinated people, it gives the virus more of a chance to mutate and create variants, like delta, that have more of a chance to infect fully vaccinated people.

“Now it’s in our hands to make personal decisions about the levels of risk that we want to take. But it isn’t 95% effective anymore, it isn’t, and that’s because of delta and that’s because of time since vaccination,” said Dr. Shira Doron, a hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center.

Unfortunately, boosters just became available and for many people, they haven’t even achieved the full impact of that booster dose yet. It’s unknown whether or not Gen. Powell received a booster shot.