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Local public health experts: Colin Powell’s not part of vaccination debate

For some, the pandemic-related death of former Secretary of State Colin Powell — who was fully vaccinated against COVID-19 — is yet another example of the ineffectiveness of the coronavirus vaccines.

But local public health experts on Monday said Powell’s death has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with science.

Dr. John Swartzberg said Powell had been previously diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a malignancy of a certain type of cell that plays a key role in a person’s immune system.

“These are people who are unlikely to respond well to the vaccine if they respond at all,” Swartzberg said. “His death, as tragic as it is, has nothing to do with the vaccine and everything to do with the profound dysfunction of his immune system.”

By comparison, Swartzberg said someone with breast cancer who is not currently undergoing chemotherapy or radiation would have a much better immune response to the vaccine and is not at higher increased risk of breakthroughs. A breakthrough is when a fully-vaccinated individual contracts the virus.

COVID-19 critics often use the occurrence of breakthrough cases as proof of the ineffectiveness of the vaccine. But local health officials have repeatedly said that while breakthroughs do occur, the vaccine greatly reduces one’s chances of being hospitalized for severe COVID illness.

Officials say vaccinated individuals who have died of COVID-19 complications tend to be much older with severe underlying health issues, as well as those with a weakened immune system.

According to the latest county data, unvaccinated people are hospitalized at a rate seven times higher than those who are fully vaccinated. Officials said that during the “delta surge,” which peaked in the summer, the hospitalization rate for the unvaccinated was 14 times higher than that of vaccinated individuals.

County data shows that when adjusting for age, local unvaccinated people are over 30 times more likely to die from COVID19 than vaccinated individuals.

Dr. Sundari Mase, the county’s health officer, said that in general fully vaccinated people who have died of COVID complications probably did not gain immunity from the vaccine. “It’s as if they are unvaccinated,” she said.

Aside from those who have a weakened immune system due to a medical condition, people of advanced age also have trouble gaining immunity. “They’re just not able to mount the same immune response as a health younger person,” she said.

Mase said those with compromised immune systems include, among others, people who have undergone an organ transplant and are on medications that suppress the immune system; cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy; people with genetic disorders that effect the immune system; people who with kidney disease on dialysis; and diabetics who don’t have their disease under control

Swartzberg said those who, like Powell, are at higher risk of contracting the virus and getting severe COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, should still get the vaccine. “But don’t count on them,” he said. “You still have to be meticulously careful … This pandemic is hard on everyone, particularly the severely immunocompromised.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno.

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