News broke today that former Secretary of State Colin Powell died at 84 from complications related to COVID-19.
The military leader had been fully vaccinated, but like millions of Americans, Powell suffered from a medical condition that increased his risk of severe illness from COVID-19. Powell had previously been diagnosed and treated for multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer that impacts the body’s ability to fight infections.
Powell’s death has reignited an ongoing issue with how we think and talk about COVID-19. Since the start of the pandemic, the virus has often been painted as a disease that spares the healthy and targets the vulnerable.
While it’s true that the infection often takes a more severe course in older adults and people who are immunocompromised, the public dialogue has left many disabled people feeling as though they’re disposable. The reality is that a large portion of Americans have a medical condition that puts them at risk for COVID-19, and about 40% have at least two chronic health conditions. Even if you personally don’t have a preexisting condition, there’s a pretty solid chance you know or care about someone who does.
If we’ve learned anything from COVID-19, it’s that we are all extremely interconnected and the choices and precautions we take can and will directly impact those around us. Getting vaccinated and protecting yourself against COVID-19 will automatically protect people around you who could very well be more at risk for experiencing complications from the illness.
Why fully vaccinated people with chronic conditions are still at risk
According to Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and an infectious disease expert, though the vaccines continue to be great at protecting most people against serious illness, hospitalization and death, there does appear to be some erosion in the shot’s long-term ability to protect certain people, including those over 65 and people who are immunosuppressed.
People who are immunocompromised — such as those with cancer, like Powell, and people being treated with chemotherapy — may not respond as well to the standard two-dose vaccine regimen of the messenger RNA vaccines. Adalja said this is why boosters are being made available to certain groups who may have waning protection against severe disease.
“The vaccines are not perfect but nor is human physiology, and so we’ve always known that the vaccines don’t prevent death 100% of the time and there is a certain percentage of people who are at higher risk,” added Lucy McBride, a practicing internal medicine physician in Washington, D.C.
McBride said it’s important to identify who is most at risk to better understand the disease and help mitigate the risk factors and improve the outcomes for any and all who contract the coronavirus.
“We need to respect, not dismiss, people with underlying health conditions,” McBride said.
“We need to respect, not dismiss, people with underlying health conditions.”
The best way to prevent all of this is still to get vaccinated
Powell’s death absolutely does not mean that the COVID-19 vaccines do not work. If anything, it’s a sign that we need to do a better job at protecting people who are vulnerable. The No. 1 way to protect at-risk people in your community is to get vaccinated yourself.
“That will decrease the chance you could spread this virus to somebody who might be immunocompromised,” Adalja said.
If you spend time around older adults or people who are immunocompromised, you’ll want to remain vigilant with other health and safety measures as well. Wear a mask when you’re around at-risk friends and family members and stay home if you’re sick.
For anyone who is eligible to get a booster — which includes people over the age of 65, individuals with certain chronic health conditions that may impact their immune functioning, and those who work in high-risk settings — it’s important to get the booster dose as soon a possible, Adalja said.
McBride’s advice: Get vaccinated, get the booster shot if you’re eligible, practice reasonable precautions, and most importantly, take care of your underlying health.
“Caring for underlying health is essential as is preventing COVID-19 through vaccination,” McBride said.
Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.