Colin Powell dies at 84 of COVID complications despite being fully vaccinated

(AP Photo/Eric Reichbaum)

In a slightly different timeline, Powell runs for president as a Republican in 1996 and becomes the first black major-party nominee. Maybe even the first black president.

His legacy still includes important “firsts” — the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the first black Secretary of State. He’ll be remembered today by the professional commentariat as a distinguished soldier and statesman and by the online commentariat on both sides as something of a villain. The left won’t forgive him for selling the Iraq war to the United Nations based on bad intelligence, the right won’t forgive him for having supported Democrats like Barack Obama in his later years as the GOP turned more populist.

Rest in peace:

The way he died is destined to be a major plot line in the coverage of his passing. A famous person’s death is news, a famous person’s death from COVID is big news, and a famous person’s death from COVID after being vaccinated is Grade A prime-cut culture-war fodder. The news had barely circulated this morning before anchors at Fox News began highlighting the fact that the vaccine didn’t save Powell’s life. And not the primetime anti-anti-anti-vax anchors either. The news people:

We can (and should) flog Roberts for his embarrassingly incomplete reporting in that tweet but he’s not wrong about how some Americans will process Powell’s death, especially those already inclined to doubt the vaccine’s efficacy. Why did a man who was fully vaccinated end up dying of COVID? Don’t the vaccines work?

Yeah, they work. But the older you are, the weaker your immune system is likely to be. The CDC has recorded more than 7,000 deaths from breakthrough infections this year and 85 percent of them were senior citizens:

Seven thousand deaths among the vaccinated in 2021 versus roughly 350,000 and counting among the unvaccinated. It’s impossible to know exactly how many American lives were spared by vaccination in the past nine months but one model created by the Yale School of Public Health ballparks it at 279,000, with more than a million hospitalizations averted.

The vaccine will save most recipients but it won’t save everyone, especially those who are older and sicker. And Powell was both older and sicker than the average patient, having suffered from two major comorbidities. One was Parkinson’s:

Add Parkinson’s disease to the list of health conditions that increase a person’s risk of hospitalization after contracting COVID-19, according to research from the Hartford HealthCare Chase Family Movement Disorders Center (CFMDC).

A team of researchers led by CFMDC Medical Director Dr. Joy Antonelle de Marcaida also found that patients with Parkinson’s and other movement disorders are more likely to have more severe outcomes than the general population if they get COVID-19, especially if they have concomitant dementia.

That study found a mortality rate of 36 percent for patients with Parkinson’s without dementia and 41 percent for those with dementia. And that wasn’t even Powell’s biggest risk factor.

He also suffered from multiple myeloma, “a type of blood cancer that hurts the body’s ability to fight infections.” One study of vaccine recipients with myeloma found the disease severely limited their ability to build an immune response to COVID:

Only 45% of active MM patients developed an adequate response, while 22% had a partial response. Lower spike antibody levels were associated with older age, impaired renal function, low lymphocyte counts, reduced uninvolved immunoglobulin levels, > second line of treatment, and among those not in complete remission…

Overall, 55% of MM patients failed to fully respond to COVID-19 vaccination. Low baseline IgM levels were most predictive of incomplete responses to the vaccines, while vaccination with mRNA-1273 resulted in higher anti-spike antibody levels than BNT162b2 in this population. Based on these data, myeloma patients may need to continue social distancing following COVID-19 vaccination, and postvaccine spike IgG levels may help guide decisions regarding future revaccination strategies and/or antibody prophylaxis for this vulnerable population.

Being 84 and doubly immunocompromised makes for a poor prognosis even if you’re fully vaccinated. Powell’s wife Alma is 83 and also suffered a breakthrough infection but she’s not afflicted with her late husband’s conditions. Reportedly she’s responding to treatment. Dan McLaughlin put it well: “If you’re vaccinated, COVID is the flu – and not even one of the worse forms of the flu. But a man of Powell’s age with his cancer could easily die of the flu.”

One question that’s yet to be answered is whether Powell had had a booster shot yet, as data from Israel shows that vaccine immunity begins to wane after five or six months. Whether a booster would have done him any good given his condition is unclear, but if he hadn’t had a chance to get a third dose that would have further reduced his chances of survival. Hopefully the political battle over vaccination won’t overshadow the celebrations of his service to the country this week.