Like millions of other Americans, Colin Powell was vaccinated against COVID-19. But unlike others, he was not protected. The virus took his life on Monday at age 84.i
General Powell was secretary of state under President George W. Bush. He also served at the nation’s top soldier as chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff.
After he got sick, Powell received the best of care. He was treated by top doctors at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. It’s the same hospital that successfully treated former President Donald Trump when he had COVID.ii
Colin Powell’s Bad Luck and Multiple Risk Factors
The question is, why did the vaccine fail to work for Powell?
It may boil down to two things: Bad luck and multiple risk factors.
Powell had the bad fortune of being one of the rare people who get a breakthrough infection that is fatal.
Of the more than 187 million fully vaccinated people in the U.S., about 7,000 have died of COVID, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That means vaccinated people have just a 0.004% chance of dying of COVID.iii
In all, 724,499 people in the U.S. have died of COVID. Vaccinated people account for less than 1% of the fatalities.iv
It’s not clear which vaccine Powell took or whether he received a booster dose.
Besides having bad luck, Powell also had risk factors that put him in greater danger.
His advanced age and his gender worked against him. Of breakthrough cases resulting in death, 85% were among people over age 65. And 57% were among men, according to the CDC.
The risk of dying from COVID-19 is 11 times higher for unvaccinated people than it is for vaccinated people. But among older people like Powell, the gap is smaller. Among those 80 and older, the risk of dying from COVID is only about five times higher among unvaccinated people than those who are fully vaccinated.
Cancer Survivors Have Higher COVID Risk
Powell was a cancer survivor. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2003 when he was secretary of state. He had surgery to remove his prostate and returned to work only a week after the procedure.v
When he died, Powell reportedly had another form cancer, multiple myeloma. It is a form of blood cancer. It can harm the body’s ability to fight infections, which means it may have contributed to Powell’s death.vi
Both cancer survivors and cancer patients are at higher risk of death from COVID-19, according to a study at the University of Pennsylvania.vii
It found that cancer patients were nearly twice as likely to be hospitalized from COVID-19 and nearly 10 times more likely to die.
Researchers point out that the heightened risk comes not just from the cancer, but cancer treatments. Radiation and chemotherapy can damage the immune system, making it harder to fight infections.viii
COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective in preventing severe disease and death. But Powell’s death is a reminder that no vaccine is 100% effective. Older people and those with other risk factors are at greater danger from a breakthrough infection.
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