Colin Powell, the first Black U.S. secretary of state, died Monday from complications from COVID-19, even though he was fully vaccinated.
But while he’s not alone – around 7,000 Americans and 450 Canadians who were fully vaccinated have died from COVID-19, according to federal data – doctors note it remains rare, and that getting the vaccine is still extremely important as it protects you and others from the disease.
“When we’re hearing about some individuals who are dying who happen to have been fully vaccinated, it starts creating doubt in the minds of others about whether the vaccine is even worth it at all,” said Dr. Samir Sinha, director of geriatrics at Sinai Health and the University Health Network in Toronto.
“But we do know that those who are vaccinated have a far, far, far lower chance of potentially getting sick and even dying than those who are unvaccinated,” he said.
The Public Health Agency of Canada estimates that fully vaccinated individuals are 79 per cent less likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 and 62 per cent less likely to die as a result of their illness. Only five per cent of deaths were in fully vaccinated people, their data shows.
Breakthrough cases happen for a number of reasons, said Dr. Don Vinh, an infectious disease specialist and medical microbiologist at the McGill University Health Centre.
The Delta variant is more infectious than previous variants of COVID-19, he said, and that can account for some of it. Then, he said, immunity after vaccination might wane over time. Another factor is that some people’s immune systems just aren’t as strong.
“There are a group of people who have either conditions or treatments for their conditions that compromised their immune system and prevent them from being able to even adequately respond to the vaccine to begin with,” Vinh said.
In Powell’s case, he was 84 years old and suffering from multiple myeloma – a blood cancer that reduces the body’s ability to fight infection.
Elderly people might also have weaker reactions to the vaccine, said Rod Russell, a professor of virology and immunology at Memorial University.
“The people I’m concerned about now are the older people,” he said. “We recognize now that antibody levels do decline. And then in older people, there’s a chance that they may not be able to fight infection if they get it.”
According to data from the CDC, 85 per cent of fully vaccinated Americans who died from COVID-19 were aged 65 or older.
Some countries, including the U.S., have recommended booster shots for people over 65, and Russell said he wouldn’t be surprised if Canada eventually adopted a similar policy. The National Advisory Committee on Immunization has already recommended third doses for immunocompromised individuals and seniors who live in congregate settings such as long-term care homes, and is currently considering whether to offer them more broadly.
However, even if you’re not a senior citizen and don’t have a weakened immune system, you should get vaccinated, Vinh said.
“We live in a society, we don’t live in isolation,” he said. “You may say, the inherent risk to myself is low … but it doesn’t mean that the people around them are impervious to the consequences of getting infected.”
Getting vaccinated decreases the risk for everyone in the community, Russell said, and helps protect vulnerable people.
“Imagine there are people walking around with you right now who got their two shots and think they’re protected but might not be,” he said. “Those are the ones that I’m worried about. It’s the elderly people who are at the grocery store.”
The less virus around, the less likely these people are to be exposed to it in the first place, he said, which means fewer breakthrough cases and deaths.