No, Colin Powell’s death does not show that COVID-19 vaccines don’t work

Fully vaccinated people are better protected against COVID-19 -- including those who are immunocompromised, studies show.
Credit: AP Photo/Steven Senne
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell addresses a crowd at an event called "An Evening With Colin Powell," held for the 2008 U.S. Scholar-Athlete Games, in Providence, R.I., Tuesday, July 1, 2008.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell died at 84 from COVID-19 complications, his family announced on Oct. 18. Powell’s family said he was fully vaccinated, and an aide told the Associated Press that Powell had multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that affects the immune system.

Some headlines (like this one here) and social media posts (like this one here) reporting Powell’s death mentioned he was fully vaccinated but did not note that he had a condition that compromised his immune system.

Following Powell’s death, there was debate on social media with some questioning the point of getting vaccinated if there’s still a chance of dying from COVID-19, and others explaining that people who are immunocompromised don’t necessarily have the same immune response to the COVID-19 vaccines as people who are not immunocompromised.

VERIFY dug into the data and research to break down the two claims.

THE QUESTION

Do people who are unvaccinated have a higher risk of dying from COVID-19 than people who are fully vaccinated?

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER

This is true.

Yes, data from a CDC study, as well as data from individual states, show people who are not fully vaccinated have a higher risk of dying from COVID-19 than people who are fully vaccinated.

WHAT WE FOUND

The CDC received data from 16 health departments that document COVID-19 deaths and vaccination status. Those health departments represent about 30% of the total U.S. population.

According to that data, in August 2021, people who were unvaccinated had an 11.3 times greater risk of dying from COVID-19  than people who were vaccinated.

One of the states included in the CDC data was Utah. Data from the state’s health department shows that since Feb. 1, 2021, Utahns who were not vaccinated had an 8.8 times greater risk of dying from COVID-19.

Some states not included in the CDC data also track COVID-19 deaths and vaccination status. And their data share the same conclusion: people who are unvaccinated are more likely to die from COVID-19.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health says between Jan. 1, 2021, and Oct. 4, 2021, 93% of COVID-19-related deaths were among people who were unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated.

“Cumulative death incidence among the unvaccinated and not fully vaccinated was 6.0 times as high as the death incidence among the fully vaccinated,” the state’s health department said.

Virginia’s Department of Health says between Jan. 17, 2021, and Oct, 9, 2021, people who were unvaccinated died of COVID-19 at a rate 6.7 times that of people who were vaccinated.

California says from Sept. 19 to Sept. 25, the most recent week it has data, people who were unvaccinated were 17.8 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than people who were.

In North Carolina, the state’s department of health and human services said for the four-week period ending Oct. 2, 2021, people who were unvaccinated were 19.86 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than people who were vaccinated.

Dr. Christopher Doern, the director of the microbiology lab at Virginia Commonwealth University, says it is clear that getting vaccinated reduces a person’s chances of dying from COVID-19.

“There's no question that being vaccinated protects you from not only hospitalization, but really bad outcomes, such as mortality and all the other negative things that go along with COVID,” he said.

The CDC and public health departments note that no vaccine is 100% effective at preventing infection, hospitalization or death.

“Especially at the scale we're talking about here,” Doern said. “We're talking about millions of cases, there's always going to be exceptions.”

But data from health departments across the U.S. show people who are fully vaccinated are less likely to die from COVID-19 than people who are not.

THE QUESTION

Are people who are immunocompromised more susceptible to getting COVID-19 even if they are fully vaccinated?

THE SOURCES

  • CDC
  • Study on vaccine antibody response in organ transplant recipients
  • Study in Israel on effectiveness of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine
  • Study on effectiveness of Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines for people at high risk
  • Dr. Brian Boyarsky, research fellow at Johns Hopkins Medicine

THE ANSWER

This is true.

Yes, people who have compromised immune systems are more susceptible to getting COVID-19 even if they are fully vaccinated, but studies show vaccines still provide some protection for many immunocompromised people.

WHAT WE FOUND

About 2.7% of people in the U.S. have weakened immune systems – with varying degrees of severity. Those people have a greater risk of getting COVID-19 and don’t build the same level of immunity from the COVID-19 vaccines as people who are not immunocompromised, according to the CDC.

Multiple studies have found that people with weakened immune systems may not generate the same response to the COVID-19 vaccines as people who are not immunocompromised, but vaccines still provide some protection for many immunocompromised people.

A May 2021 study of organ transplant recipients found 46% had no antibody response to the Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 vaccines. The finding surprised Dr. Brian Boyarsky, a research fellow at Johns Hopkins Medicine who was one of the authors of the study.

“This was in stark contrast to the 100% of healthy people in the original trials who developed antibodies,” Boyarsky told VERIFY in June. “This was surprising and concerning for us because we believe that a lack of antibody response to the vaccine could mean that someone is at a higher risk for developing the infection, or a severe form of the infection, after vaccination.”

A separate May 2021 study in Israel found the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine was overall 90% effective against infection. But among people who were immunosuppressed, it was 71% effective.

Another study, published in August 2021, found the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines were 91.3% effective among people who weren’t immunocompromised and 62.9% among people with immunosuppression. That same study found that among 45 people who had breakthrough COVID-19 cases that resulted in hospitalization, 20 (44%) had immunosuppression.

The CDC in August recommended people who are moderately to severely immunocompromised get an additional shot of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine -- with hopes that the third dose improves their immune response. The additional shot is recommended at least 28 days after the second dose.

The CDC considers the following people as moderately to severely immunocompromised:

  • Been receiving active cancer treatment for tumors or cancers of the blood
  • Received an organ transplant and are taking medicine to suppress the immune system
  • Received a stem cell transplant within the last 2 years or are taking medicine to suppress the immune system
  • Moderate or severe primary immunodeficiency (such as DiGeorge syndrome, Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome)
  • Advanced or untreated HIV infection
  • Active treatment with high-dose corticosteroids or other drugs that may suppress your immune response

In the weeks before recommending the additional shot, the CDC evaluated four studies and concluded “Among those who had no detectable antibody response to an initial mRNA vaccine series, 33-50% developed an antibody response to an additional dose.”

While the studies were encouraging, the CDC said it’s not yet known if the vaccine, following a third dose, is more effective at preventing infections for people with compromised immune systems than the two-dose regimen.

“While these studies evaluated serologic immune response to an additional vaccine dose, the clinical impact of an additional dose on acquisition, severity, and infectiousness of infections in fully vaccinated immunocompromised persons is not yet known,” the CDC says on its website.

Although the COVID-19 vaccines may not be as effective for people with weakened immune systems, the CDC and the American Medical Association still recommend they get vaccinated to get the most protection possible. 

More from VERIFY: Fact-checking 3 claims about COVID-19 vaccine booster shots

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