When the death of Colin Powell due to complications from COVID-19 was announced early Monday, medical experts feared that anti-vaxxers and others who question the reality of safe and effective shots might try to use the tragedy to fuel their conspiracy-laden agenda.
It didn’t take long for those worries to come to fruition.
In a statement, Powell’s family said the beloved 84-year-old general and former official in multiple Republican administrations passed away from unspecified COVID-19 complications on Monday at Walter Reed National Medical Center. While Powell was fully vaccinated against the deadly virus, he underwent prostate cancer treatment in 2003, and had been previously diagnosed with multiple myeloma. That type of blood cancer and attendant treatment can severely weaken the body’s immune system.
In a country where roughly 1,500 people die of COVID-19 every day—the vast majority of them unvaccinated—alarm bells rang about how Powell’s death would factor into the pandemic.
“I really worry that his death is going to fuel anti-vaccine misinformation and conspiracy theories… that vaccines are not effective,” Lawrence Gostin, a Georgetown University global-health expert, told The Daily Beast. “If his death led to other preventable deaths, it would be a great tragedy.”
Gostin argued that like any other vaccine for any disease, the three authorized coronavirus vaccinations do not offer—and have never claimed to provide—“iron-clad protections against COVID.” But every piece of evidence points to their being “overwhelmingly effective, especially against hospitalizations and deaths.”
“Colin Powell is the exception to the rule about COVID-19 vaccines,” Gostin said.
Noting that details of Powell’s vaccination type—or whether he had received a third dose, per updated guidelines—were not yet available, Gostin suggested that Powell’s immunocompromised state may have had an impact on his ability to fight against COVID-19.
“His body couldn’t mount an effective immune response to the virus that a normal healthy person would,” Gostin, who is also a Daily Beast contributor, said. “That’s why immunocompromised people have been authorized for third doses. It’s not because the COVID-19 vaccines are a risk to them, it’s because when you get the vaccine your body can’t mount robust protection. That may have been his problem.”
“People who are elderly with underlying conditions and with weak immune systems are much more vulnerable, even with vaccinations, than others,” he added.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that among the 187 million Americans that are fully vaccinated, there have been roughly 7,000 breakthrough deaths—most of them over the age of 65, in keeping with the trends since the virus came on the scene last year.
In comparison, there have been 700,000 COVID-19 deaths among those who are unvaccinated.
The CDC also released a study last month concluding that unvaccinated Americans were 4.5 times more likely to contract COVID-19 than vaccinated people, almost ten times more likely to be hospitalized, and 11 times more likely to die from the virus.
“Vaccines are good—but not perfect, especially for people over the age of 65,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, a pediatrician and virologist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston who is also a Daily Beast contributor.
“Because Colin Powell is a military hero and a big figure in conservative groups—both groups who tend to be more vaccine-resistant—I definitely think it’s a concern that his death could cause a chilling effect in vaccination rates for some Americans,” Hotez added.
In the early hours of its coverage on Monday, Fox News appeared to be proving Hotez’s point.
Not an hour after Powell’s death was announced, Fox & Friends co-host Will Cain used the news as an opportunity to rant about COVID-19 vaccines. “This day will be a day for many things,” Cain said. “It’s also a day to remember the implications on everyday Americans.”
Cain stressed that the former military leader was fully vaccinated, prompting Americans to “wonder what lies ahead for them and they search and they need truth moving forward, we’re seeing data from across the world. We’re seeing data from Europe, from the United Kingdom, the fully-vaccinated people are being hospitalized and fully-vaccinated are dying from Covid.”
The Fox anchor then added that Powell’s death was a “very high-profile example that is going to require more truth... more truth from our government, from our health leaders as well. As we talk about this story on a day when state after state and institution after institution are pushing mandates for vaccination.”
Cain has been one of Fox News’ most prominent vaccine skeptics, falsely claiming that children are more likely to end up hospitalized from the vaccine than COVID itself. He’s also insisted that doctors who recommend vaccines should be distrusted because they’ve been “captured by groupthink.”
Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz, who has loudly opposed so-called vaccine passports, also used Powell’s death to inveigh on the jab, writing on Twitter that “post-vaccine breakthrough infection kills more people than Iraq’s WMD’s ever did.”
Gaetz attached a since-deleted tweet from Fox News anchor John Roberts—which suggested that Powell’s death “raises new concerns about how effective vaccines are long-term.” Roberts later apologized for the tweet and insisted it was not “anti-vax.”
Fox News did run a segment later in the morning that featured network medical contributor Dr. Marty Makary noting that Powell was severely immunocompromised.
“Just more evidence that the vaccine kills…,” radio talkshow host Shepard Ambellas misleadingly said on Monday about the news of Powell’s death.
“Just another ‘rare’ ‘mild’ ‘breakthrough’ case,” he wrote. “And the highest profile Covid death to date by far. Because vaccines work. Rest in peace, General Powell.”
Sinclair host Sharyl Attkisson, who has repeatedly peddled vaccine misinformation and promoted anti-vaxxers, also used the tragedy to attack the efficacy of vaccines, claiming the “shots only work for a few months.” At no point during her Twitter tirade did she mention Powell’s immunocompromised status.
But experts roundly agree that members of the public—who may have been unvaccinated—could have been a factor in Powell contracting the deadly virus. According to Powell’s Facebook page, one of his final public appearances was at a packed 9/11 memorial event at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., last month.
“Powell may not have gotten the virus if everyone around him was vaccinated,” Gostin said, adding, “The chances that Mr. Powell contracted the infection from an unvaccinated person are extraordinarily high.”
Hotez agreed that if Powell did indeed suffer from multiple myeloma, that might explain his impaired responses to the COVID-19 vaccination. His reported diagnosis would have also made him the ideal candidate for the recently-authorized third dose of at least one of the vaccinations to ensure maximum protection against the virus.
“We know that people with multiple myeloma don’t respond well to mRNA vaccinations. So while any vaccination would have been good for Powell, he would have desperately needed the third immunization. The third time’s the charm in this case,” Hotez said.
Despite Powell’s complicated medical history, Hotez had a few concerns going ahead.
“The anti-vaccine groups will make two assertions: one being that vaccines don’t work and the other that the vaccine may have killed Powell,” Hotez said, adding that a similar tactic was employed after legendary home run hitter Hank Aaron passed away in January—even though he died from natural causes.
“These groups have greater bandwidth and a big presence online. So get ready for some wild Powell theories,” Hotez added.
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