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High-profile and fully vaccinated but immunocompromised: Colin Powell’s death wrongly seized upon to undermine utility of coronavirus vaccines

The four-star general served under three Republican presidents and was also the youngest and first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (Video: Monica Rodman, Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

He was the youngest chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was the first Black American to become secretary of state. And in his prime, he was one of the most respected leaders in the country.

But within hours of the public announcement Monday that Colin L. Powell died of complications from covid-19 despite a full course of vaccination, some conservative officials and media personalities tried to make him something else: A prominent reason to doubt the coronavirus vaccines’ utility and question the political and health officials urging Americans to get them.

Tucker Carlson opened his prime-time Fox News program Monday evening by telling his viewers that Powell’s death shows that they’ve “been lied to” about the vaccines’ ability to quash the pandemic. “Vaccines may be highly useful for some people, but across the population, they do not solve covid,” Carlson said.

Fox News’s Will Cain declared Powell’s death a “very high-profile example that’s going to require more truth,” implying doubts about the efficacy of the coronavirus vaccines.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who has frequently minimized the significance of covid, wrote on Twitter: “Post-vaccine breakthrough infection kills more people than Iraq’s WMD’s ever did,” a reference to the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction that were used by Powell, who led George W. Bush’s State Department, and others as a reason to go to war in Iraq.

Powell, who was 84 and immunocompromised, fit perfectly into a demographic that remains vulnerable to infections despite vaccination. His age puts him at a higher risk for covid-19, and he was battling a blood cancer that’s known to make vaccines less effective. He also suffered from Parkinson’s disease.

“He had two strikes against him already,” said Celine Gounder, an infectious-diseases specialist who was on President Biden’s covid advisory board during the transition, referring to Powell’s age and medical condition. “He was just not going to respond as well to the vaccines.”

But in a political moment where every public health strategy to mitigate the virus has been politicized, public health experts said they expect Powell’s death to be misconstrued to feed a narrative that the vaccinations do not work.

“They’re looking for reasons to not get vaccinated, to convince people not to get vaccinated, to say it’s a futile, useless act,” Gounder said. “Why that is, I just do not understand.”

Using Powell’s death to raise questions about the vaccines also plays into an effort on the right to minimize the impact of and need for getting the shots, even though public health experts across the globe have consistently said that high rates of vaccination are needed to end the pandemic.

Republican officials are nearly universally opposed to businesses and governments mandating the coronavirus vaccines. But a segment of the party has gone further, publicly questioning the science and efficacy behind mitigation measures.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said Sunday on Fox News of the vaccines: “The mounting data shows that they’re not working or are as safe as we all hoped and prayed they would be.” The vaccines, developed in record time, have far exceeded public health officials’ efficacy expectations against serious infections and death.

The White House acted swiftly to tamp down any notion that Powell’s death undermines the vaccines. When asked Monday about Powell’s death, Biden noted his medical history. “He had serious underlying conditions,” Biden said. “That’s the problem.” He added that Americans should “absolutely” get vaccinated.

During a White House briefing Monday, press secretary Jen Psaki emphasized how unusual it is for breakthrough infections to lead to death.

“There are extremely rare cases of deaths or hospitalizations among fully vaccinated individuals,” Psaki said when asked about Powell. “Underlying health issues, fighting other diseases is something that can lead to greater risk.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released new data showing that unvaccinated Americans are far more likely than the vaccinated to test positive for the virus. Among the oldest Americans, for whom covid has been consistently more deadly, those without the vaccination were far more likely to die.

Public health officials said Powell’s death should instead be seen as an example of why more people should get vaccinated, noting that high levels of community spread, even among healthy populations, will inevitably lead to breakthrough cases because no vaccine is 100 percent effective.

“The problem is we are not living in a time of facts,” said Brian Castrucci, the president of the de Beaumont Foundation, a public health group funding research into why some Americans are balking at getting the vaccines.

“Facts are not going to stop the weaponization and the politicalization of General Powell’s death for those who seek to continue to undermine the effectiveness and safety of these vaccines.”

Also at play, say public health experts, is that despite the deaths of more than 720,000 Americans to covid, few major political leaders who have contracted the virus have died, while a host of prominent political figures — including former president Donald Trump — have been infected and survived it.

“Every visual image that we have around covid furthers the idea that it is just like a cold,” Castrucci said.

Castrucci said that covid has so far lacked what he terms a “Magic Johnson moment” — a reference to the change in national attitudes that he said came after NBA star Johnson contracted AIDS and showed the country that the disease could be contracted by a famous athlete and someone outside the gay community. “It’s really hard to change your behavior when you’re not afraid of something,” Castrucci said.

Powell had his second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine eight months ago in February. Booster shots have been authorized for elderly Americans who’ve had the Pfizer-BioNTech shot at least six months ago.

Powell was scheduled to receive a booster shot, but he did not get one because he became ill ahead of his appointment, according to Peggy Cifrino, a longtime spokeswoman.

In addition to his advanced age, Powell suffered from multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer that researchers have determined makes the vaccines less effective.

A recent study in Nature showed that, for those with multiple myeloma, less than half of patients developed what researchers termed “an adequate response” to the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines.

“That’s to be expected if somebody is immunocompromised — their immune systems will not respond as well,” Gounder said. Patients with AIDS and organ transplants also have similar risks, she said.

For those who knew Powell well and respected his long career in public service, the notion that his death might be weaponized was particularly difficult to process.

“It would be a tragedy if his death was used by extremists to undercut science and health when Colin Powell himself was such an advocate for the truth,” said Frank Luntz, a longtime GOP pollster who knew Powell.

Luntz said in an interview with The Washington Post that Powell’s pursuit of the truth allowed him to stand up to presidents. And, Luntz said, he had little patience for critics of the vaccines.

“Powell would look vaccine critics straight in the eye and he’d say, ‘Don’t be stupid,’ ” Luntz said. “He was blunt.”

Matt Viser and Joel Achenbach contributed to this report.