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The death of former Secretary of State Colin Powell on Monday from COVID-19 complications demonstrates why more people need to get vaccinated, experts note.
Powell's battle with cancer and his advanced age put him in a category most susceptible to COVID-19, the disease caused by the deadly coronavirus. These highly vulnerable people are the ones who benefit most from the community protection that widespread vaccination provides, scientists say.
Powell was fully vaccinated, according to a statement from his family. But he had multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer that suppresses the body's immune response. Both the disease and the treatment leave the patient with a weakened immune system.
Not only are these patients more vulnerable to many kinds of infection, but their immune systems do not respond as well to vaccines. Fewer than half of vaccinated multiple myeloma patients developed a good enough immune response to protect them against COVID-19 in a recent study, New York University epidemiologist Céline Gounder noted.
Also, older people are more likely to die from COVID-19 than younger people. Powell was 84 years old.
Patients like Powell are the most at risk when the virus is spreading widely, noted Whitney Robinson, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
"When we don't get (coronavirus) transmission low, the most vulnerable — the old, the immunocompromised, the just plain unlucky whose bodies can't mount a robust immune response to vaccines — they pay a high price," she said.
The best way to get transmission rates low, others noted, is through more vaccination.
"Mr. Powell might not have contracted the virus if we had very high vaccine coverage," Georgetown University public health law professor Lawrence Gostin said. "That's why we must end misinformation" that is discouraging many from being vaccinated.
Vaccination efforts in the United States have stalled, largely along partisan lines. Most Republicans (58%) have been vaccinated, but this group also includes the largest proportion of those who say they definitely will not be vaccinated (23%), according to Kaiser Family Foundation polling.
Republicans are more likely to tell pollsters that vaccines are not working as promised. A Daily Beast writer posted a video clip of Fox News host Will Cain using the death of Powell to rail against the efficacy of vaccines.
By comparison, 90% of Democrats have been vaccinated and only 4% say they definitely will not get a shot.
Patients crowding hospitals in many parts of the country have overwhelmingly been unvaccinated. The hospitalization rate among the unvaccinated is 12-fold higher than those who have received the shots, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The United Kingdom shows similar trends. In the first half of 2021, more than 51,000 people died of COVID-19. Of those, more than three-quarters were unvaccinated.