The death of former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell following a breakthrough COVID-19 infection shines a high-profile spotlight on what has been a rare phenomenon.
Powell died at 84 from COVID-19 complications despite being fully vaccinated, his family announced on Monday. The decorated former general and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was being treated at the Walter Reed National Medical Center.
The available data show that such deaths are exceptionally rare. More than 187 million people in the U.S. had been fully vaccinated as of Oct. 12. Of those, 7,178, or 0.004%, had died of a breakthrough infection, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of that group, 85% were over the age of 65.
People who come down with COVID-19 after getting vaccinated are also unlikely to wind up in the hospital, the data suggest. Through Oct. 12, 24,717 people had been hospitalized with a breakthrough case, and of that group, 67% were 65 or older.
The numbers reinforce results from the clinical trials of coronavirus vaccines and booster shots that showed that getting inoculated substantially reduces the odds that a recipient will become sick enough to require hospitalization or die if they do become infected.
Older adults who contract breakthrough infections do appear to be at higher risk of more serious outcomes, said Josh Michaud, associate director, global health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation.
“Colin Powell, 84 years old, fits that profile,” he said. “Older adults have a greater risk that the infection will progress to a more severe stage, and some will progress all the way to death, unfortunately.”
Adults ages 65 and older and people with medical conditions like cancer are among those eligible for a booster dose of the Pfizer Inc.-BioNTech SE shot. The Food and Drug Administration could authorize boosters for Americans who received the Moderna Inc. and Johnson & Johnson vaccines as soon as this week.
According to multiple media reports, Powell suffered from medical conditions that could make him more vulnerable to severe COVID-19. Representatives of the Powell family couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
It isn’t clear whether Powell had received a booster, Michaud said.
Still, this “might serve as a reminder for those adults who are eligible for boosters but have not yet received one to go out and get one,” he said. “Perhaps this jars people into action.”