This is a reminder that vaccines protect not only you, but also those around you who are more susceptible to COVID-19.
On Monday morning, former Secretary of State Colin Powell died of COVID-19 complications. He was fully vaccinated, a detail that the right-wing has been all too eager to brandish. The detail they’ve conveniently ignored? The fact that Powell also had several risk factors, including multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that dampens the immune system’s ability to fight off infection. Despite what the right claims, Powell’s death makes the case for vaccines, which work best when as many of us as possible get them, so that those of us for whom it’s effective can protect those for whom it isn’t.
To absolutely no one’s surprise, the right quickly leapt at the opportunity to spin an anti-vax narrative around Powell’s death. “The fact that Colin Powell died from a breakthrough COVID infection raises new concerns about how effective vaccines are long-term,” Fox News anchor John Roberts said in a since-deleted tweet. (Twitter saved the receipts, of course.) Meanwhile, conservative commentator Nick Adams, whose Twitter banner reads “President Trump’s Favorite Author,” tweeted, “Fully vaccinated former 4-star General Colin Powell has died from COVID. Rest In Peace.”
It didn’t help that multiple major outlets, including The New York Times, Newsweek, and the Associated Press, mentioned at least in their initial tweets about Powell’s death that he was fully vaccinated, but not that he had multiple myeloma which compromised his immune system and potentially impaired its ability to trigger a strong enough response to the vaccine. The discrepancy was noted by Caroline Orr Bueno, a postdoc at the University of Maryland who studies misinformation and disinformation.
When I saw the push notifications on my phone about Powell’s death, I immediately suspected that other risk factors played a role. Sure enough, Powell had several, as Peter Hotez, professor of pediatrics, and molecular virology and microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine, tweeted. “Patients with MM [multiple myeloma] are at extreme risk of bacterial and viral infections because they cannot mount effective antibody responses or other immune defenses,” he explained. They don’t respond robustly to many vaccines, either, he added, and in fact, fewer than half of patients in one study produced a strong enough response to two doses of mRNA COVID vaccines. (Pfizer and Moderna fall under this class of vaccines.)
And let’s not forget that Powell was 84 years old. Although the CDC found in August that the vaccinated were 11 times less likely to die of COVID than the unvaccinated, the death rate among vaccinated people 80 and older was almost as high as that of unvaccinated 50- to 64-year-olds, The Washington Post noted. In short, older adults are at higher risk of COVID and have worse outcomes, even if they do get the jab.
Anti-vaxxers might wield these findings to argue against the effectiveness of vaccines. In reality, they’re all the more reason to get vaccinated. When a high enough percentage of the population develops immunity to COVID, the disease will be less likely to spread from one person to the next. Ideally, we want this immunity to result from vaccination rather than from contracting something as dangerous and contagious as COVID.
This would protect the most vulnerable members of the population — those, like Powell, for whom the vaccine is less effective, or who can’t get the vaccine. Because we wouldn’t really be passing the virus on to each other, it would have a much harder time “finding” these higher-risk individuals, the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology explains. We would basically create a large enough buffer for them against the virus — the underlying rationale of herd immunity.
In other words, if there were way less virus circulating through the population thanks to enough of us being vaccinated, Powell might’ve been protected from COVID. As it stands, though, the virus is still ripping through the U.S.
The takeaway from this tragedy is that more of us need to be vaccinated, not only to protect ourselves, but those around us, especially those who are most vulnerable. Lucky Tran, director of science communication and media relations at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, put it best. “When we hear about tragic breakthrough infections, it is a reminder that vaccines work best collectively,” he tweeted. “No one is safe, until everyone is safe.”