Health officials fear that anti-vaccine campaigners will use Powell’s death to claim the vaccines don’t work. If you can still die after being vaccinated against Covid-19, what’s the point of getting vaccinated?
What is the answer to this question? I discussed this with CNN medical analyst Dr Leana Wen, an emergency physician and professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health. She is also the author of a new book, “Lifelines: A Doctor’s Journey in the Fight for Public Health”.
CNN: When you see vaccinated people die from Covid-19, how do you explain that vaccines are still worth taking?
This means that if you are vaccinated, you are six times less likely to contract Covid-19 than an unvaccinated person. And you are 11 times less likely to die from Covid-19 compared to an unvaccinated person. It is really excellent.
However, Covid-19 vaccines do not protect you 100%. No vaccine does, it is likely that no medical treatment is 100% effective. This does not mean that the vaccine does not work or that you should not take it.
CNN: are are some people more likely to have serious consequences from Covid-19, despite vaccination?
Magnifying glass: Yes, and based on what we learned, General Powell fell into that category. We know that people who are older and have underlying health conditions are more likely to develop serious illness and die from breakthrough infections. People particularly at risk are people who are immunocompromised. Having multiple myeloma would put General Powell in this category and, in addition to his advanced age, would increase the level of risk.
Note that this is one of the reasons why booster injections are recommended. In August, federal health officials recommended that people with moderate or severe immunosuppression who had received Pfizer or Moderna vaccines receive a third dose of the vaccine. They warned that even with the extra dose, immunocompromised people should take extra care. This is because this is a category of people who are particularly sensitive to serious consequences.
CNN: You’ve said before that vaccines work best when everyone else takes them, right?
Magnifying glass: Exactly. Think of the Covid-19 vaccine as a very good raincoat. It works great to protect you in case of drizzle. But if you’re in a thunderstorm and then a hurricane hits, there’s a lot more chance you’ll get wet. This does not mean that your raincoat is faulty. This means that you are in bad weather and the raincoat alone may not always protect you.
If you are surrounded by a lot of viruses, it increases your chances of getting infected. The problem isn’t with the vaccine, it’s that there are too many viruses around you.
That’s why the key is to get as many people vaccinated as possible. This lowers the overall infection rate and ends up protecting everyone. And, if you’re in an area with a lot of viruses, wearing a mask in crowded indoor spaces adds an extra level of protection.
And let’s not forget that we also get vaccinated to protect the most vulnerable among us, who are most at risk of serious consequences.
According to this CDC study, unvaccinated people are 17 times more likely to be hospitalized for coronavirus than fully vaccinated adults. Those who end up with groundbreaking cases resulting in hospitalization are more likely to be older and have several underlying medical issues, as we’ve seen.
CNN: What else would you say to those who don’t believe the vaccine is working?
Magnifying glass: I would ask them to think about other aspects of medicine. Let’s say someone has heart disease. There are medicines to treat heart disease, but they are not 100% effective – nothing is. Just because someone ends up with an exacerbation of their illness and in the hospital doesn’t mean the drugs aren’t worth taking.
Or take an example of prevention. Let’s say that a person who eats a healthy diet and exercises a lot always ends up with high blood pressure and diabetes. That’s not to say that diet and exercise aren’t good to do. It just means that you can take whatever steps are necessary to prevent a disease, but sometimes you can still get the disease.
One of the main puzzles in public health is that our work is prevention-oriented. While you see the end result if and when prevention fails, you don’t see all the lives saved through prevention.
A modeling study supported by the National Institutes of Health found that Covid-19 vaccines prevented more than 139,000 deaths in the first five months of their availability. As of May 9, approximately 570,000 deaths from Covid-19 have occurred in the United States. Without vaccines, 709,000 deaths could have occurred.
The bottom line is that vaccines work. They reduce the risk of contracting disease, becoming seriously ill and dying. They are not 100% because nothing is.
CNN: Can vaccines also prevent a resurgence of the virus this winter?
Ultimately, the key to reducing the risk of Covid-19 for everyone – and to ending the pandemic – is for each of us to get vaccinated. It protects us and those around us.
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