The immediate news cycle following the death of former Secretary of State Colin Powell on Monday went about as one might expect.
First came the push notifications: Colin Powell, the first Black U.S. secretary of state, has died at 84 from COVID-19 complications, as it popped up in a banner during my morning yoga session. Then came the inevitable question of Powell's vaccination status: Indeed, his family confirmed, he'd been fully inoculated against the disease. Then the requisite debates about his legacy — the "too soon" scolds cheek-to-jowl with those muttering about how Henry Kissinger is somehow still alive — then, at last, the secondary politicizing of Powell's passing, the commentary not about his life and policy record but about his death itself. "The fact that Colin Powell died from a breakthrough COVID infection raises new concerns about how effective vaccines are long-term," mused Fox News' John Roberts, shortly before being shouted down by the Twitter hoard and deleting his tweet.
It's only natural for Powell's death to cause some alarm. Many early headlines omitted the important context that he was also fighting multiple myeloma, "a type of blood cancer that hurts the body's ability to fight infections," as pointed out by CNBC. Still, any whiff that the vaccines might not grant full invincibility against COVID-19 is inevitably seized by science-doubting skeptics. In short order, "fully vaccinated" — that newsworthy detail — was trending on Twitter.
Without political spin or irresponsible omission, however, Powell's death is a demonstration of the realistic case for vaccination. Vaccines were never meant to prevent anybody from ever dying from COVID-19, because that's simply not how vaccination works. Their purpose, which they amply accomplish, is to massively reduce the risk of death and serious illness. With around 190 million people in the U.S. fully vaccinated against COVID-19, we know of fewer than 7,178 breakthrough deaths. And while breakthrough cases are higher among the elderly, "incidence of deaths among the unvaccinated ... 80 and older" are still "more than four times higher" than among those vaccinated in that age group. Dying of COVID-19 while fully vaccinated is incredibly rare.
But, but, but! What are the odds of someone as high-profile as Colin Powell dying of a breakthrough COVID-19 case? Given his myeloma, it perhaps shouldn't be surprising.
But we should also look at the bigger picture, the one where 66 million Americans are eligible yet unvaccinated, where the national case and death rates look about the same now as they did in May of 2020. The vaccine campaign was never about saving any one life. It's a collective effort to save others' lives as well as our own — that's the "herd" in "herd immunity." Powell's death should be a wake-up call that the pandemic isn't over yet, that herd immunity is still unachieved.