My deepest condolences to those who loved Colin Powell, whose family reported that he died from complications of COVID-19, despite being fully vaccinated. As a young adult, I revered Colin Powell immensely. He was the epitome of pulling himself up from his own bootstraps — and he got the boots for himself, not waiting for them to be provided. He was greatness, continually striving for excellence, and setting his own bar. He did not allow the judgment of others, nor their low expectations of him, impede his ascension.
As of Tuesday, we have lost over 726,000 lives to COVID-19. Powell’s death — as his life — will be illuminated. However, we can not allow his name and legacy to be part of the political tug of war, nor the discourse between people who are in favor of or against getting vaccinated. It’s already happening: On Monday night, just hours after Powell’s family announced his death, some conservative pundits argued that the fact that he died of COVID-19 suggests the vaccines don’t work.
Facts: General Colin Powell, with all of his greatness, was immunocompromised. I wasn’t ever his treating physician, however he had surgery for (1) prostate cancer. He had (2) multiple myeloma and (3) Parkinson’s disease. He was (4) African American. He was (5) elderly. Even though he was fully vaccinated against COVID-19, any one of the five risk factors listed above made him more vulnerable and susceptible to infection. When you add the five of them together, the vaccine efficacy — or protection from the vaccine — is diminished.
I presume he was in remission from prostate cancer, but as a surgeon, I can state that your body is often not the same after cancer. Multiple myeloma is often treated with steroids, chemotherapy, and sometimes stem cell transplantation, all of which suppress your immune system. Parkinson’s disease, a neurologic condition, also affects your immune function. African Americans, male and female, have also been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. We now know that being Black is its own independent risk factor for severe illness, complications, and death from COVID-19. Yes, other factors such as economic and insurance status, as well as educational level, play a role, but with all being equal, being African American still places you at a greater risk. There is not enough space in this article to explain why.
What’s more, our immune system at 84 is not the same as our immune system at 14. That is the way our body and our physiology are designed. It’s why children can carry higher viral loads and not get as sick, but the same viral load in someone who is older or immunocompromised can harm them. It’s why public health officials — myself included — have been advocating for vaccinations in our patients 12 and up. Yes, you may not get as sick — you may even be asymptomatic — but the person you encounter may not be so lucky. So to the multigenerational households of parents and teenagers that are not vaccinated, that live with grandma: You are putting her health, her life, at risk.
Yes, Powell was fully vaccinated. Like the flu vaccine (yearly reminder: get your shot), the protection and efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccine wane over time. It is why the boosters (a third dose) were approved for immunocompromised individuals in August 2021. The science showed us that, as the delta variant spread wildly, vaccinated people no longer had the protection they may have had initially after their second shot, particularly if they were immunosuppressed.
“Let’s crush the narrative that his death sends a message that vaccines are irrelevant.”
General Powell: Thank you for being a living example that hard work will solve most of your problems. For not making excuses for your own failures, but rather owning them. For serving as an example to so many that refused a vaccine, by doing all you could to protect yourself and your community.
I am grateful to have seen a Colin Powell in my lifetime. For those that want to run with this, don’t. Let’s crush the narrative that his death sends a message that vaccines are irrelevant. It tells us the opposite is true, in fact: We need everyone to get vaccinated so that we can protect our friends, family, and neighbors who, like General Powell, remain vulnerable even after vaccination.
Fact: Vaccines save lives.
Dr. Ala Stanford is a surgeon and the founder of the Black Doctor’s Consortium, which has tested and vaccinated thousands of Philadelphians during the pandemic.