The death of former Gen. Colin Powell, 84, from COVID-19 this week is a stark reminder of the very real dangers the pandemic poses to people whose immune systems have been compromised, said Dr. Charles Bregier, Novant Health medical director of corporate health.

Colin Powell
Gen. Colin Powell. Photo sourced from U.S. Government.

Powell, the first Black U.S. secretary of state and a four-star general, was fully vaccinated. But his immune system was weakened by multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that more than 30,000 Americans are diagnosed with annually. While there is no cure for multiple myeloma, Novant Health does offer cutting edge treatment to help slow its spread.

As physicians and public health experts have repeatedly warned, the elderly, the immunocompromised and people with chronic conditions are at greater risk from COVID, even when vaccinated. That’s one of the key reasons doctors urge us to all get vaccinated: It reduces the spread of COVID and protects the most vulnerable among us.

Dr. Charles Bregier
Dr. Charles Bregier

These factors also contributed to the recent decision at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to vote in favor of booster shots to provide added protection. Vulnerable Americans were already eligible for boosters and Powell had been scheduled to get one last week, but then became ill before he could get the booster. Bregier said it could have made a difference if he’d gotten the booster before getting sick.

According to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been 31,895 COVID breakthrough cases as of Oct. 12, compared to more than 44 million total cases reported in the U.S, that’s 0.07%. It’s also important to note that the total number of reported breakthrough deaths account for less than 1% of the 722,000 COVID deaths in the U.S.

Bregier weighs in here to answer questions about vaccines and breakthrough cases.

How common are breakthrough cases and are vaccines still effective?

Breakthrough COVID cases remain relatively rare and are expected as more patients become vaccinated. Unfortunately, vaccine skeptics are using high-profile deaths as fuel to support the narrative that vaccines don’t work.

While it’s true that COVID-19 vaccines are not 100% effective at preventing infection, they have been proven to significantly reduce the risk of severe illness, hospitalization and death. Evidence of this can be found in the fact that more than 90% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated, and nearly all COVID deaths occur among the unvaccinated.

Studies show that vaccinated patients are 8 times less likely to contract COVID-19 and are 25 times less likely to experience hospitalization or death.

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Can cancer make you more susceptible to COVID-19?

Yes. One of the many side effects that can occur from a cancer diagnosis is a weakened immune system. In general, patients with cancer are at a higher risk of infection from things like flu and COVID-19, and, as a result, they may experience worse outcomes.

Some of the other risk factors can include heart disease, diabetes, stroke and obesity. It’s really important for all patients, and especially high-risk patients, to get their COVID-19 vaccine and booster dose once they become eligible.

When should patients get their COVID booster shots?

As with any vaccine series, the amount of protection we get decreases over time. And while we have already started to administer booster doses to eligible patients, I think we’re going to continue to see widening recommendations for additional populations.

Vaccines continue to be our best proven defense against COVID-19, and overtime they will likely become common practice, like the flu shot.

What do you predict will happen as we head into the holiday season?

While cases have recently been on the decline, we also know that cold weather is upon us, and flu season is around the corner. We also know that there are still a lot of Americans who are eligible for the vaccine but have not gotten it yet for various reasons.

So, I would say it’s important to not let our guard down or think that this pandemic is over when it’s not. As we all look forward to the holiday season, I would encourage all eligible patients to get the vaccine to not only protect themselves, but their families and the community.