Powell’s COVID-19 death an argument for vaccination, not against, local doctors agree


BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — Gen. Colin Powell has died from complications of COVID-19 at the age of 84 despite having been vaccinated against the virus. What should we make of that?

Have we invested more trust in these vaccines than is warranted? Or was his death statistically predictable based on what health experts have observed previously about the reality of so-called breakthrough infections? Or was Colin Powell, who in four decades of public life served as the nation’s top soldier, diplomat and national security adviser, simply an especially vulnerable risk?

The answers are no, yes and yes.

Powell had undergone treatment for a cancer known as multiple myeloma, and both the treatment and the cancer itself compromised his immune system. His age alone — mid-80s — was a serious risk factor.

Dr. Ravi Patel of the Comprehensive Blood and Cancer Center in Bakersfield said multiple myeloma is especially devastating to the immune system.

“If you have cancer, you’re getting medications, which are chemotherapy, it will suppress your immunity,” he said. “And when your immunity is suppressed, you’re at a much higher risk of getting it. Gen. Colin Powell is a perfect example. He had an immunocompromised case called multiple myeloma and these particular individuals have an immune system which is not alert enough to recognize even normal infections.”

Raw data from the CDC shows the risk of breakthrough cases is very small for vaccinated people, potentially 1 in 5,000. And the risk of being hospitalized from COVID-19 after vaccination is also extremely small, at about 5 in 100,000.

Those may seem like small numbers — and in ordinary contexts they are — but in a country where 189 million people are fully vaccinated, we will inevitably hear about breakthrough infections and breakthrough deaths. And when the fatal breakthrough case in the news involves someone like Colin Powell, renewed doubt is inevitable.

Dr. Barij Bhambi of Heart Hospital says the Colin Powell case ought to convince people to get vaccinated, not dissuade them.

“The vaccines are a phenomenal triumph and they are an excellent shield,” he said, “but they’re not an impenetrable shield. Don’t confuse 90% with 100%. These have 90% efficacy. If you have a look at the vaccinated versus not vaccinated, the probability of death is 11 times more if you’re not vaccinated. It’s not zero but it’s tremendously helpful against death and hospitalization. 

So, doctor, do we take it you’re not buying Colin Powell’s COVID-19 death as a legitimate “ah-ha” moment for the anti-vaccination crowd.

“No,” he said, “it’s an argument for vaccination, not against vaccination.”

And so the verdict from the two local experts: The COVID-19 vaccination protects you. It does not make you invincible.

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