Breakthrough Cases Like Colin Powell's Make Up Under 1 Percent of COVID Deaths

The death of Colin Powell on Monday from complications arising from COVID has reignited questions about the efficacy of vaccines and the risk of so-called "breakthrough" cases.

Powell, the 84-year-old former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who served as the 65th U.S. secretary of state, died at Walter Reed National Medical Center despite being fully vaccinated against the virus. Details regarding when Powell received his vaccination, or whether he had received a booster shot haven't been released.

Powell was receiving treatment for multiple myeloma, a type of cancer that forms in white blood cells and can compromise a patient's immune system, at the time of his death.

Breakthrough infections are cases of COVID suffered by people who have been fully vaccinated. They occur because no vaccine, or medical intervention in general, is 100 percent effective.

A virologist at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) and adjunct professor at the University of Saskatchewan, Dr. Angela Rasmussen, remarked on Twitter that deaths like Powell's are a clear example of why boosters are needed for vulnerable people. The tweet has been liked almost 6,000 times.

Yes, Colin Powell died of a breakthrough infection. That is why boosters are recommended for people at high risk for severe COVID-19.

Yes, that means vaccines aren’t 100% effective.

No, that doesn’t mean that vaccines are 0% effective.

— Dr. Angela Rasmussen (@angie_rasmussen) October 18, 2021

"The better Covid-19 vaccines, the mRNAs, are, in fact, pretty good at protecting against infection, but some breakthroughs are inevitable," John P Moore, professor of microbiology and immunology at Weill Cornell Medical College, told Newsweek. "However, these vaccines are still strongly protecting against serious COVID-19, which is why the overwhelming majority of the hospital-severity infections and deaths in the USA at the moment are in unvaccinated people."

According to the latest figures from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), updated on Friday, October 15, there are currently 31,895 known cases of COVID breakthrough infection in the United States. Of these, 7,178 cases resulted in a fatality.

According to The New York Times COVID tracker, the current number of deaths resulting from COVID in the U.S. is over 726,000. That means that the deaths of fully vaccinated patients still account for less than 1 percent of all COVID fatalities.

The number of breakthrough cases is out of an estimated 187 million people in the U.S. who have been fully vaccinated. So, less than 0.004 percent of people vaccinated have contracted a breakthrough infection and died.

"One important point to remember is that everyone's response to vaccination and to infection is a little bit different," Richard Kennedy, Ph.D., an immunologist and co-director of Mayo Clinic's Vaccine Research Group, told Newsweek."The response might prevent infection, or it might not. If it doesn't, it might reduce your symptoms or shorten your illness, or it might not. If it doesn't, it will probably keep you out of the hospital or keep you from dying."

Getting a Booster Shot

The CDC is tracking how factors such as age, race, underlying conditions, and other demographics play a role in breakthrough infection, but currently can find no unexpected or unusual trends. It recommends that people with moderately to severely suppressed immune systems like Powell receive a booster shot of a COVID vaccine.

"Keep in mind that immune responses fade over time. Always. For every vaccine ever created. After every infection ever studied," Kennedy said. "Sometimes the response fades over decades and sometimes over months."

Dr. Tom Frieden, a former director of the CDC, told Newsweek previously: "Vaccines are one of the greatest of all inventions. They have saved hundreds of millions of lives and can save many millions more.

"But they aren't perfect: the best way to build confidence in vaccines is to continue to share, in real-time, what we know about their effectiveness, about the characteristics of people for whom they don't work as well, and about any rare adverse effects."

Colin Powell
A picture of Colin Powell at the "National Memorial Day Concert" in Washington, DC, on May 28. Powell died on Monday of complications arising from COVID despite being fully vaccinated. Paul Morigi/getty