Powell's COVID Death Despite Vaccination Shows Danger to Those With Weakened Immune Systems

Robin Foster
HealthDay News

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MONDAY, Oct. 18, 2021 (HealthDay News) -- Colin Powell, the first Black person to become Secretary of State and a military leader who helped shape U.S. foreign policy for decades, died Monday of complications from COVID-19. He was 84.

"General Colin L. Powell, former U.S. Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, passed away this morning due to complications from COVID-19," the Powell family wrote in a Facebook post. "We have lost a remarkable and loving husband, father, grandfather and a great American," they said, noting he was fully vaccinated.

Powell becomes one of the most high-profile American public figures to die after having a "breakthrough" coronavirus infection, although there were factors that raised his risk of severe COVID-19 infection greatly, experts noted.

"While Powell was fully vaccinated, he also had multiple myeloma, a cancer that suppresses the body's immune response," explained Dr. Gwen Nichols, chief medical officer at the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. "Multiple myeloma is not curable, so while he may or may not have been on active treatment, his disease, and his age, made him more vulnerable to breakthrough infection, complications and death," she added.

"Whoever transmitted the virus to him may have been asymptomatic, but they gave him a disease he could not fight as well, despite vaccination," Nichols said. "This death does not demonstrate the futility of vaccines, but instead underscores the importance of everyone getting vaccinated to protect society's most vulnerable."

One infectious diseases expert agreed that Powell's death does not mean that coronavirus vaccines aren't working.

"The anti-vaccine movement is probably already trying to use this death to undermine confidence in the vaccine[s]," said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar with Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, in Baltimore. "It's important to remember that Colin Powell was 84 years old and he had some other medical conditions. This is why we are recommending boosters in this age group."

"We know this isn't the first person who's been fully vaccinated who's died. The fact that he's a celebrity and an icon is garnering all this news, but we know the vaccine, irrespective of these individual cases, is something that decreases the risk of death or severe disease from COVID-19," Adalja said.

"Even though it may not be 100%, it is very high. These exceptions do not change the confidence that any of us in the field have in the vaccine," he stressed. "We expect there's going to be some small proportion of fully vaccinated individuals that die. Largely, they are going to be elderly or with other medical conditions. This doesn't change the actual facts about the vaccine."

Following news of his death, accolades began pouring in for Powell.

"He was a great public servant, starting with his time as a soldier during Vietnam," former President George W. Bush said in a statement on Monday. "He was such a favorite of presidents that he earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom — twice. He was highly respected at home and abroad. And most important, Colin was a family man and a friend."

Powell became the first Black national security adviser during the end of Ronald Reagan's presidency and the youngest and first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George H.W. Bush, CNN reported. His national popularity soared in the aftermath of the U.S.-led coalition victory during the Gulf War, and he was at one point considered a leading contender to become the first Black President of the United States. But his reputation suffered when, as George W. Bush's first Secretary of State, he pushed faulty intelligence before the United Nations to advocate for the Iraq War, CNN said.

During Powell's time in the military, which lasted until 1993, he also received a number of other notable awards, including the Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts. He received his fourth star in 1989, becoming only the second Black American to rise to that rank.

In addition to the military awards, Powell also received the President's Citizens Medal, the Secretary of State Distinguished Service Medal, and the Secretary of Energy Distinguished Service Medal, as well as a second Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded with distinction, from former President Bill Clinton.

More information

Visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for more on COVID vaccines.

SOURCES: CNN; Gwen Nichols, MD, chief medical officer, Leukemia & Lymphoma Society; Amesh Adalja, MD, senior scholar, Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, Baltimore; President George W. Bush, statement, Oct. 18, 2021


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