Colin Powell’s Death Argues for Vaccines, Not Against Them
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Vaccine opponents are seizing on the death of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was fully vaccinated yet died of Covid-19 complications, to cast doubt on the vaccination effort against the virus. As usual, these people are dangerously wrong. The death of someone like Powell, who was 84 and fighting multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that significantly hampers the immune system, is a potent argument to vaccinate as broadly as possible.
The risk of dying was 11.3 times higher among the unvaccinated during the same period.
The further you break down the data, the more clear it becomes that most are at a far lower risk than Powell was even when healthy. A majority of concerning breakthrough infections occur in older people because they generate a weaker immune response to vaccines and diseases even when healthy and more frequently have other conditions that can worsen the impact of Covid. The risk of dying from Covid while fully vaccinated is most pronounced in those older than 80 — though the death rate is still below what unvaccinated people in the 50-64 age group face — and drops precipitously from there.
Older people were also vaccinated earlier than others and may see vaccine efficacy fade more over time. For this reason, they have been prioritized for booster shots that can increase protection. Those older than 65 who received Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE’s vaccine became eligible for boosters in late September, with authorization for those vaccinated with Moderna Inc. and Johnson & Johnson shots expected soon.
Because Powell had been treated for multiple myeloma, he may have been eligible for a third shot starting in August. While the CDC data doesn’t break out people with these sorts of extra vulnerabilities, it’s clear they make up an outsize portion of those who become extremely ill. One study conducted from March to May of this year found that 44.7% of breakthrough cases requiring hospitalization were in those with weakened immune systems.
A spokesperson told the New York Times that Powell planned to receive a booster shot last week before falling ill, but even that might not have eliminated his risk. People with blood cancer can have a weak response to Covid vaccines, and some don’t generate any measurable protection. Sometimes they don’t even respond to a third shot. That isn’t the vaccines’ fault; it’s a consequence of a disease that specifically interferes with the body’s ability to protect itself and the aggressive treatments needed to hold it back.
Powell’s age and condition gave him the exceptional high risks that make generalizing about vaccine efficacy the least accurate. In his case and that of many others, individual protection isn’t enough. He needed as many people around him as possible to take extra precautions and be vaccinated to diminish his chances of encountering the virus.
About 23% of eligible Americans haven’t received even one dose of a Covid vaccine. Powell’s death serves a particularly prominent reminder of exactly why that number is much too large.
According to CDC data aggregated from health departments in 16 states and cities that report detailed breakthrough case data, covering about 30% of the U.S. population, and 15 jurisdictions that report death data.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Max Nisen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering biotech, pharma and health care. He previously wrote about management and corporate strategy for Quartz and Business Insider.
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