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Colin Powell's COVID-Related Death: Age, Cancer, Parkinson's Increased Vulnerability

October 21, 2021

The death of former Secretary of State Colin Powell Oct. 18 highlighted the stress COVID-19 puts on the bodies of older people, especially those who, like Powell, have other challenging diseases. The 84-year-old Powell, whose death was attributed to COVID-related complications, had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a form of cancer, and Parkinson’s disease before becoming infected with COVID-19. He was fully vaccinated. “Those who are of advanced age may have a diminished immune system, may not mount a proper response to a vaccine, or may have a comorbid condition that puts them at risk,” said Dr. Ulysses Wu, Hartford HealthCare’s System Director of Infection Disease and Chief Epidemiologist. Diseases like cancer and diabetes compromise a person’s immune system, making it harder, even if the person is vaccinated, to fight off a virus like COVID-19, he explained. “Vaccines will never prevent 100 percent of deaths, as infection is a diverse interplay of factors of which infection will drastically improve your chances, as we have seen, but not prevent death 100 percent of the time alone,” said Dr. Wu. “It should also be noted that he got infected, not because the vaccine didn’t work but because someone else likely did not have the vaccine.” [embed]https://youtu.be/zuKpqg6dsHc[/embed] Keith Grant, APRN, Hartford HealthCare's Senior Director of Infection Prevention, said Powell is part of a trend of breakthrough COVID cases that’s increasing as the pandemic goes on. “There is an increase in amount of breakthrough cases that we’re seeing. A lot of this we believe has to do not just with the reduction of antibodies over time, but we’ve noticed change in social attitudes with individuals,” Grant said, adding, “We have to be very careful when we go out whether or not we’re vaccinated.” Most people who develop breakthrough COVID, meaning they are infected after being vaccinated, recover, he said. Those who are immunocompromised, like Powell, face more challenges. “There are three primary factors - they’re at increased risk for getting infection, they’re also at risk for having severe impact of being infected, and they will struggle with mounting the amount of effective antibodies through normal vaccination,” Grant said. “When have all these elements on board, along with advanced age, it is a significant amount of risk factors to be considered.”