Gen. Powell’s death is a reminder we still need to get vaccinated

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(Photo by Daniel Schludi on Unsplash)

By Micha Green
AFRO D.C. and Digital Content Editor
mgreen@afro.com

When Gen. Colin Powell died from complications of COVID-19 on Oct. 18, after full vaccination, the anti-vax delegation came out in droves to emphasize their points about the uselessness and dangers of the COVID-19 vaccine, without any consideration of the former Secretary of State’s other health challenges and comorbidities. However, with the magnitude of losing such an important leader in American history and culture, White House COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force Chair Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith is reminding people just how important it is to get the COVID-19 vaccine to protect immunocompromised individuals.

“[Gen. Powell was] the epitome of public servant and we all, I know I personally, have gratitude for all he did for our nation- just luminary. I feel it. I cried. Having never met him, but I cried, and my heart aches for his family and everyone feeling the loss in that way and everyone who has lost someone in and to COVID-19.  It’s just so hard,” Nunez-Smith said, honoring the life of the fallen leader and the more than 739,000 lives lost to COVID-19 in the United States.

When news of Powell’s passing began to spread, so did anti-vax rhetoric. Radio host Shepard Ambella reacted to Powell’s death saying, “Just more evidence that the vaccine kills,” and self-proclaimed “COVID Contrarian” Alex Berenson, who has been kicked off of  Twitter, snarkily wrote on Substack, “Just another ‘rare’ ‘mild’ ‘breakthrough’ case.  And the highest profile COVID death to date by far.  Because vaccines work.  Rest in Peace, General Powell.”

With the anti-vax agenda reporting negatively surrounding Powell’s full vaccination status and subsequent death, vaccine supporters also came with questions on how to combat such concerns and still encourage others to get vaccinated.

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“I really appreciate people asking that question, and I’ve certainly heard from friends and family members asking the same,” Dr. Nunez- Smith said. “One thing that I will say, which is a little bit interesting and somewhat reflects the positive momentum we’ve had in this country around vaccination, the people I’m hearing from are people who are vaccinated, and they’re asking really about the one or two people who are still in their orbit who are still unvaccinated, and they’re asking ‘How do I talk about it with this person and these people?’ So, thankfully, most people are vaccinated, who are eligible, and I’m really grateful that we’ve seen disparities in vaccination by race and ethnicity close and reverse at this point among our adults.”  

A practicing internist, Dr. Nunez-Smith explained that Powell’s death was not a result of the vaccine, but rather comorbidities that played a role in his sad fate.

“When we look at what’s publicly available, it sounds like he was living several important conditions, including multiple myeloma, which is a cancer of the blood, so his immune system, may well have been compromised and the CDC and FDA spoke about immunocompromised people and vaccination earlier this summer in response to evidence that shows for people who have compromised immune systems, it can be really difficult to mount the appropriate immune response, even to, what we consider, full vaccination, one shot of the J&J (Johnson & Johnson) or two of any of the MRNAs, and made a recommendation for those immunocompromised to get an additional shot.  Even for people who have gotten that third shot, their immune systems aren’t as strong as people who don’t have a compromised immune system,” the internist explained.  “This is why it remains so important that we go out there and get vaccinated because there are people, who even with vaccination, aren’t going to have the strongest response.”

Nunez-Smith explained it is for those immunocompromised people, such as Gen. Powell, that it is even more important to get vaccinated.

“I think what we have right now are a couple of lessons. One, our way of showing kindness and love to others is by getting vaccinated, because we never know whose immune system was not able to mount a response that can fight off the worst of COVID-19.  The other thing to remind people of, that quite frankly, it’s very rare to see breakthrough infections, and to see severe breakthrough infections.  So for most people who have an infection with COVID-19 after full vaccination, it’s going to be no symptoms, or mild symptoms.  And certainly, we know that the vaccines are still very strong at keeping people out of the hospital- away from dying,” she said before also emphasizing the importance of boosters. “Of course there’s a reason for boosters, making sure people that are fully vaccinated, that when they’re eligible, get a booster to continue to keep them safe from the worst of COVID-19.”

Beyond the efficacy of the vaccine, Dr. Nunez-Smith also emphasized to help others understand that getting the COVID-19 shot is also safe and important and to give people grace as they process the vaccine, particularly during this moment of nationwide shock of Powell’s passing despite full vaccination.

“Hundreds of millions of doses [have been] given, the safety profile- incredibly consistent- and they are working, and so continuing to remind people of that, but understanding in this moment of national loss and grief that there will be that ask.”

Nunez- Smith also said that in addition to getting vaccinated, making wise decisions surrounding social distancing and masking is also key.

“[The vaccines are] incredibly effective- the most effective vaccine we’ve seen in a long time.  I mean it’s remarkable it’s effectiveness. But we have to be doing the other things too. We have to be paying attention to the math game, and our social- making good choices about avoiding big crowds when we can- the things that are in our control and power, to own those moments to help,” she said. 

Finally, the internist and Chair of the COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force emphasized that we have to uplift the Black community for playing their parts in getting vaccinated and applaud the people who have made the decision to get the shot despite trepidation.

The CDC reports that 77.7 percent of the U.S. population for people over 12 have at least one vaccination.

“I think we have the same challenge that every group has, is how do we get from the 72, 74, 76 percent to 100.  And that’s the same for every group.  So there’s not some unique phenomenon for Black people in this time.  We’ve overcome so much more to get to that rate, and so I just also want to lift up… those people who were like, ‘I don’t know, I don’t know,’ and then they were like ‘yes.’  [We can’t] keep focusing on the folks who remain at ‘no,’ I just want to always applaud the people who got to yes and how we got there.  They’re heroes to me too,” Smith said enthusiastically.

“I don’t want people to feel ashamed or anything about taking the time they needed.  They got to yes, and that’s where they are and they’re vaccinated and they’re doing their due now.  And I don’t want to conflate those people with the people who are like, it’s going to be no forever, and this is a political statement ‘no,’” the Chair of the COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force added.

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