Vaccinations protect recipients against COVID-19 and protect society’s most vulnerable citizens by reducing the potential spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes the airborne infectious disease, according to two medical experts.
Dr. Rutul Dalal of UPMC and Dr. David Pugliese of Geisinger, both located in Pennsylvania, each said the death of Gen. Colin Powell, who died Monday of COVID-19 complications, reinforces the need for those eligible to become vaccinated. His death, they said, is not evidence that the vaccines don’t work.
“Love thy neighbor,” said Dalal, medical director, Infectious Diseases, UPMC in North Central Pennsylvania “This is very important. We don’t know who among us is immunosuppressed and we should be protective of them.”
Powell, 84, was fully vaccinated. He also was immunocompromised. As reported by The Washington Post, Powell’s age put him at high risk of severe infection from COVID-19 and he suffered from Parkinson’s disease. He’d been treated for multiple myeloma, too, in recent years. The Associated Press reports that the blood cancer both impairs the body’s ability to fight infections and respond well to vaccines.
“When you look at this from a population health perspective, the more people we protect the better off as a society we’ll be,” Pugliese said.
“In medicine and in life there’s always going to be an anecdote or a case that would suggest things aren’t working perfectly. If you look at his case and say that’s the reason why you shouldn’t get (vaccinated), then 95% of people who save themselves from the hospital or ventilators would not have been protected,” Pugliese said.
Dalal said the current mRNA vaccines are between 30% and 70% effective for immunocompromised people, depending on their specific condition. Efficacy for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines approach 95% in generally healthy persons, he said.
Those who are immunosuppressed, Dalal said, should work with their clinicians on the timing of receiving a COVID-19 vaccination. Some therapies like corticosteroids for asthma or antimetabolites for cancer treatments, for example, can weaken an immune system’s response.
Dalal added that these same people, and those around them, must be vigilant by masking and maintaining social distance in addition to becoming vaccinated.
According to the American Medical Association, as many as 6 million U.S. adults are immunocompromised. The organization backs the recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) that such people not only undergo a two-dose regimen but also receive a third booster dose of a mRNA vaccine against COVID-19.
People who are organ transplant recipients, those actively receiving cancer treatment or who recently underwent such treatment, and those with severe primary immune disorders all count among those recommended for the booster, according to the ACIP.
Joanne Troutman, the former executive director of the Greater Susquehanna Valley United Way in central Pennsylvania, discovered just in late 2019 as the pandemic was approaching that she has Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, which is a genetic connective tissue disorder. As a result, she said she’s developed small fiber neuropathy and dysautonomia, or automatic nervous system dysfunctions.
She counts herself among millions of people fighting invisible illness. She also counts among the millions and millions more who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. She said she’ll take the booster shot, too.
“I do worry about what COVID’s impact would be specifically on my nervous system. Frankly, I’d rather not find out. But my greater concern is being able to continue contributing to family and society. I still mask in areas that are particularly crowded, not to protect me but to protect others. Selfishly, if I found out someone died because of my carelessness? I don’t know how I’d live with that,” Troutman said.
Troutman said her family has acted with caution not only to protect her but also relatives who recently fought cancer as well as those working in health care. She said she knows the vaccine isn’t a failsafe and also acknowledged the different contributing factors surrounding Powell’s death.
“The data and science are telling me that you have a much better chance of living if you’ve had the vaccine. I believe what scientists are telling me,” Troutman said. “I don’t fully understand it, but people seem to want to live in a world where they think everyone is deceiving them. No one has anything to gain by lying about COVID numbers. No one.”
In the face of vaccine skeptics holding up Powell as evidence that the inoculations don’t work, Pugliese asks everyone to work with their doctors to explore their questions about the vaccine and, ultimately, take it.
“There’s a lot of supposition about what’s the truth,” Pugliese said. “Knowing what’s out there, what the data is and how to best interpret the data to make informed decisions, that’s something we want all our patients to be aware of.”
Vaccines aren’t perfect, Pugliese said. They’re not 100% effective. The massive clinical trials conducted during the Trump administration showed overwhelming successes in most of the population studied, however, approaching 95% for both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
Underlying conditions are always at play, Pugliese said, not only for those with compromised immune systems. The same can be said for most any interaction between disease and pre-existing conditions when trying to balance one’s health issues, he said.
The overwhelming majority of vaccinated persons who do become infected with COVID-19 aren’t hospitalized and face far less risk of death, Pugliese said.
Geisinger’s Dr. Jaewon Ryu, president and CEO, last week said that “emerging evidence” indicates that vaccinated people are 5 times less likely to be infected by the disease, 10 times less likely to be hospitalized and 11 times less likely to die. Ryu acknowledged the existence of breakthrough cases, attributed to the delta variant, but said the evidence is clear that the vaccines work.