News broke on Monday that retired General Colin Powell, the former Secretary of State and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, died of complications from a “breakthrough case” of COVID-19. Soon after, anti-vaccination comments began to appear on social media and cable news.
Many of the commentators incorrectly pointed out that, since Powell, who was 84, was fully vaccinated, his death was evidence that the vaccines don’t work as effectively as proponents have claimed.
Some of those commentators deleted their comments within hours of posting.
Experts say the problem with these remarks is there was no acknowledgement that Powell had Parkinson’s disease and, more importantly, was battling multiple myeloma, a rare blood cancer that greatly increases a person’s chance of death from COVID-19.
Physicians and scientists interviewed by Healthline said Powell’s death is in no way an indictment of the vaccines.
Dr. Gwen Nichols, the chief medical officer of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, told Healthline that Powell’s death is a stark example of the risk blood cancer patients face.
“I was disappointed with some of the press coverage and the comments. It’s missing the point,” Nichols said. “This is not failure of vaccination. General Powell had reason to be in a high-risk group by his age and by the fact that he was fighting multiple myeloma, which is an incurable disease. He was immunocompromised.”
As Healthline reported in August, new research indicates that about 1 in 4 people with blood cancer do not develop antibodies to the coronavirus after getting vaccinated against COVID-19.
A study in July showed only 45 percent of people with multiple myeloma developed an adequate response after the vaccine, while 22 percent had a partial response. One-third had no to minimal response.
A study released last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that people who are unvaccinated are 11 times more likely to die than someone who is vaccinated.
CDC figures also show that Black Americans are about twice as likely to die from COVID-19 than white and non-Hispanic people.
Dr. Craig E. Devoe, the chief of medical oncology and hematology at Northwell Health Cancer Institute at Lake Success in New York, said research has “repeatedly shown” that the response to COVID-19 vaccines in people with blood cancers has been limited.
“The reason for this modest response is because both the disease and the treatment itself are highly immunosuppressive. Most hematologic malignancies are disorders of the B or T lymphocytes, which are the critical cells needed for effective immune function,” Devoe told Healthline.
“Multiple myeloma causes a depletion of these antibodies and impairs the ability of the body to fight infections,” he added.
Jennifer Ahlstrom, a multiple myeloma survivor, patient advocate, and founder of Myeloma Crowd, said the best approach for immunocompromised people is to obtain a full dose of a COVID-19 vaccine in addition to a third shot when available.
“Then, please check with your doctor to determine the strength of your antibodies against COVID-19,” she told Healthline. “If you did not develop COVID antibodies following the vaccines, you will need to take extra precautions to protect your health.”
Peggy Cifrino, Powell’s long-time assistant, told the Washington Post that Powell was “scheduled to receive his booster when he fell ill last week.”
“He couldn’t go to his appointment,” she said. “He thought he was just not feeling quite right, and he went to the hospital.”
about the author
Myeloma survivor, patient advocate, wife, mom of 6. Believer that patients can help accelerate a cure by weighing in and participating in clinical research. Founder of Myeloma Crowd by HealthTree and the HealthTree Foundation.