What Colin Powell's Death Tells Us About Vaccines, Age, Race, Other Risk Factors

Colin Powell, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who served as the 65th U.S. Secretary of State, died on Monday due to complications from COVID-19 at the age of 84, according to a statement from his family.

Powell had been fully vaccinated and was being treated at the at Walter Reed National Medical Center where he passed away.

"We have lost a remarkable and loving husband, father, grandfather and a great American," the family said in the statement.

The 84-year-old, who held the distinction of being the first African-American Secretary of State, was being treated for multiple myeloma—a cancer of a type of white blood cell called plasma cells—which compromised his immune system, a spokesperson said, as reported by The New York Times.

It is not clear what COVID-19 complications Powell experienced, or when he tested positive for the disease, or when he was vaccinated and whether or not he had received a booster shot.

What Are the Risks in Relation to Age, Race and Vaccination?

So, what are the risks of COVID-19 for an individual of similar age, race and vaccination status to Powell, and those with underlying health conditions.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC,) the COVID-19 death rate per was 1,139 per 100,000 people in the United States between February 2020 and May 2021 for people aged 65 and over.

The hospitalization rate, meanwhile, was 5,195 per 100,000 for this same period.

CDC figures show that individuals in the 75-84 year-old age group, like Powell, have a nine times higher risk of being hospitalized from COVID-19 than the 18-29 category, which the agency selected as a reference group.

The rate of death in the 75-84 category is also 220 times higher than the 18-29 category for people aged 75-84.

Race and ethnicity also play in role in determining relative risk.

The CDC says race and ethnicity are risk markers for other underlying conditions that affect health, including socioeconomic status, access to health care, and exposure to the virus for given occupations.

CDC figures show that Black or African-American, non-Hispanic individuals have a 2.8 higher chance of being hospitalized due to COVID-19 than whites and non-Hispanic people. They also have around double the chance of dying.

The CDC says that having certain underlying medical conditions increases the risk for severe COVID-19 and death. Having multiple conditions increases the risk even further.

According to one large study of underlying medical conditions and severe illness among more than 500,000 adults hospitalized with COVID-19 between March 2020 and 2021, obesity, diabetes with complications, and anxiety and other fear-related disorders had the strongest association with death from the disease.

Vaccination status is also important in determining someone's risk from COVID-19. Clinical trials of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines, for example, included large numbers of older patients.

The data from these trials suggests that these vaccines were similarly effective in older populations.

"The immune response may not be as good as the younger, less than 65 age group, but did not seem to be that significantly different," Dr. Abinash Virk, an infectious diseases expert with the Mayo Clinic, said in a statement.

According to a CDC study based on real-world data from 13 states between February and April 2021, the effectiveness of full vaccination for preventing hospitalization among adults aged over 75 was 91 percent for Pfizer-BioNTech, 96 percent for Moderna and 85 percent for the Janssen COVID-19 shots.

However, emerging data is raising doubts about how effective these COVID-19 vaccines can be in people whose immune systems are not fully functioning, such as some cancer patients, according to the American Society for Microbiology.

Cancer patients are commonly given drugs that either deliberately suppress the immune system or that suppress it as a side effect.

Studies of other viruses show that many immunocompromised people do not mount the same immune response to vaccination as healthy people. And some of the few studies that have investigated this issue with regards to COVID-19 have made similar findings.

Colin Powell
Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell arrives to pay his respects as the remains of former President George H. W. Bush at the U.S. Capitol rotunda on December 4, 2018 in Washington, D.C. Powell passed away on Monday due to complications of COVID-19 ALEX EDELMAN/AFP via Getty Images