Former Secretary of State Colin Powell died Monday morning at the age of 84 due to complications from COVID-19 complications, even though he had been fully vaccinated.
That has led to questions about the efficacy of the coronavirus vaccines, with some wondering why they should bother getting vaccinated against the virus if they can still die from it.
As part of the weekly "COVID Q&A" series, NBC10 Boston asked three top Boston doctors Tuesday about that line of thinking.
"I think first of all, the fact that vaccines are not 100% effective at preventing COVID-related death doesn't mean they're 0% effective at preventing COVID-related death," Dr. Shira Doron of Tufts Medical Center said. "Some people will die of COVID who have been fully vaccinated, but the vaccine prevents death at least tenfold over being unvaccinated, according to every recent study, and probably more than tenfold."
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"You are much more likely to die of COVID if you're unvaccinated," she added. "If you are older and have underlying medical conditions that affect your ability to mount an immune response to the vaccine, that further increases your risk."
That appears to have been the case with Powell. He underwent prostate cancer treatment in 2003 and his longtime aide said he had been treated over the past few years for multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer.
"That condition interferes directly with the body's ability to develop antibodies," said Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes of Brigham and Women's Hospital. "It's well known to increase the risk of infection where you depend on antibodies to protect you, and so he is exactly the kind of person in whom you might expect the vaccine might not be effective, and why we say immunocompromised people still need to take precautions if they've been fully vaccinated and boosted. Unfortunately, people can still be exposed."
But that doesn't mean people shouldn't get vaccinated, he said.
"To me, the argument that because some people still die after getting the vaccine is like saying, 'Well, we know 35,000 to 40,000 people die in auto accidents. Most of them are wearing seatbelts. So why should I wear a seatbelt?'" Kuritzkes said. "It makes no sense. You reduce tenfold your risk of death with the vaccine, and why you wouldn't take advantage of that reduction in risk is something I have trouble coming to grips with."
Boston Medical Center's Dr. Davidson Hamer said almost every patient his hospital has with COVID right now is unvaccinated, except for one very immunocompromised individual who had a breakthrough case.
"I think that remains a very high risk for having severe disease, hospitalization, and unfortunately, death," he said. "Colin Powell is an unfortunate situation -- amazing leader, great career. But he did have an underlying condition that greatly increased his risk."