The Key Difference With Breakthrough COVID Cases That Turn Fatal
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  • Post published:21/10/2021
  • Post last modified:21/10/2021

Over the last two years, more than 720,000 people have died from COVID in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A little more than 7,000 of those deaths were among fully vaccinated individuals, including the Oct. 18 death of retired four-star general Colin Powell. While these numbers might inspire fear in those who have already gotten their shots, health officials have long warned that breakthrough cases are expected and that a very small percentage of fully vaccinated people will get seriously ill and potentially die as a result of the virus. But these fatal breakthrough COVID cases are still extremely uncommon, and there are certain underlying factors that put someone at higher risk for severe COVID after vaccination.

RELATED: The 5 Most Common Signs You Caught Delta If You’re Vaccinated, Study Says.

Powell, who played a major role in shaping national security and was the nation’s the first Black Secretary of State, had two factors affecting his vaccine-induced immunity: age and an underlying cancer condition. The former Secretary of State under George W. Bush had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a form of cancer that affects white blood cells, before passing away at age 84 from COVID complications, per The New York Times.

According to the latest data from the CDC, older adults are more at risk for experiencing a breakthrough infection that results in either hospitalization or death. Around 85 percent of fatal COVID breakthrough cases have occurred in those 65 years or older.

Past experience tells us that COVID-19 is especially hard on older adults in congregate settings,” Linda Beers, MPH, a health expert and public health director for Essex County, New York, told the Adirondack Daily Enterprise after two elderly individuals in the county died from COVID despite being fully vaccinated. “As we age, our immune response is not always as robust after vaccination. Immunized older adults remain at higher risk for serious illness and death if they are infected with SARS-CoV-2; however, vaccines continue to be extremely effective at preventing hospitalizations and death, even with the Delta variant.”

Cancer also affects the immune response afforded from vaccination, as cancerous cells reduce the body’s ability to make antibodies, according to BuzzFeed News. A July study published in Nature found that people with multiple myeloma have significantly weakened responses to both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines as well. According to the study, only 45 percent of those with multiple myeloma “developed an adequate response” after receiving either of the two mRNA vaccines.

“People have impaired immunity both from the underlying disease and the treatments,” lead researcher James Berenson, MD, the medical and scientific director of the Institute for Myeloma & Bone Cancer Research, told BuzzFeed News. “The majority of myeloma patients do not achieve an adequate immune response to the first two vaccinations.”

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Both the U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the CDC have already approved and recommended a third shot of the mRNA vaccines for those moderately to severely immunocompromised, which includes certain cancer patients. The two agencies have also authorized a booster dose for certain at-risk Pfizer recipients, including those 65 or older, while Moderna and Johnson & Johnson booster shots are still under the process of being authorized.

But even if you do not receive a booster, you are still significantly more protected through initial vaccination compared to not being vaccinated at all. According to the CDC, unvaccinated individuals have a more than six times greater risk of testing positive for COVID. And if you do get infected after vaccination, severe breakthrough COVID cases are rare. The CDC has reported just over 31,000 severe breakthrough COVID cases among more than 187 million fully vaccinated individuals. In contrast, unvaccinated people have a more than 11 times greater risk of dying from COVID.

“We encourage everyone to get vaccinated,” Peggy Cifrino, the longtime aide for Powell, said to The New York Times.

RELATED: If You’re Over 60, This Is How Much a Pfizer Booster Protects You, Study Says.

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