Former Sec. of State Colin Powell died early Monday morning due to complications from COVID-19, according to a statement from his family.
In their statement, Powell's family noted that he had died of COVID-19 despite being fully vaccinated against the virus. That revelation led purveyors of misinformation to declare that Powell's death was proof that COVID-19 vaccines are ineffective.
At 84, Powell was already more susceptible to a severe COVID-19 infection because he was older than 65. But the statement from Powell's family did not note that he suffered from a serious medical condition that left him even more vulnerable to the virus.
Both CNN and NBC News report that Powell was suffering from multiple myeloma, a form of cancer that affects white blood cells. White blood cells are an essential part of the body's immune system, which fights off diseases or viruses when they enter the body.
Because he was suffering from a decreased immune system, Powell was part of the 3% of the adult population in the U.S. who the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifies as "immunocompromised."
According to the CDC, immunocompromised people are more at risk of contracting "serious, prolonged" cases of COVID-19 even after vaccination. The agency also notes that fully vaccinated immunocompromised people account for a "large proportion" of breakthrough hospitalizations.
In May, the National Institutes of Health reported that COVID-19 vaccines might be less effective in people suffering from certain forms of cancer — including multiple myeloma and other blood cancers.
"People with weakened immune systems need to be aware of these results, so they can live their lives safely and reduce the risk of developing COVID-19," said Dr. Ghady Haidar, one of the doctors who led a study on the effects of the vaccine in immunocompromised people. "We don't want these people to assume that they're protected when they may very well not be."
As a result, those who are immunocompromised have been forced to take extra precautions, even as businesses begin to open back up.
"Yes, they've been vaccinated, but they still have to be extraordinarily careful after receiving the vaccine because their immune system might not produce the same level of protection that other people do," Mimi Emig, a retired infectious disease expert, told Scripps station WXMI earlier this year.
To account for the decreased efficacy, the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration in August recommended that anyone who was immunocompromised seek out a COVID-19 vaccine booster shot. Powell's family did not clarify Monday if or when the former secretary of state received a booster shot.
But even with booster shots approved, infectious disease experts say that the best way to protect people who are immunocompromised against the threat of COVID-19 is to get as many people vaccinated as possible.
"By giving the vaccine to nearly everybody in the community, you make it that those whose immune systems are weaker get protected because there's not enough people who remain susceptible for the virus to be able to spread from person to person," Emig said. "Eventually, it will help protect people like me, or someone who is getting cancer chemotherapy etc., but even more importantly, we're going to bring down the total number of cases, we're going to bring down the load on the hospitals."
While vaccines are not 100% effective, real-world research proves that COVID-19 vaccines are safe and are working to bring down hospitalizations and deaths. According to the CDC, those who do not get vaccinated are 11 times more likely to die of COVID-19 compared to those who are vaccinated.
The Virginia Department of Health says more than 35,000 fully vaccinated people have gotten breakthrough infections since mid-January, with 381 people dying.
"No vaccine is 100%," said Dr. Edward Oldfield, an infectious disease expert at Eastern Virginia Medical School, who added older people with health conditions remain at more risk even if they are fully vaccinated.
"The best way to protect yourself is to be fully vaccinated, and if you meet the criteria to get a booster," he said.
Experts say the more people are vaccinated the less spread there will be.
"People who are more vulnerable, so for example people who are older and people with immune compromising conditions, really are replying a lot on the people around them to protect them," said Dr. Patrick Jackson, an infectious disease professor at the University of Virginia.