Local infectious disease expert answers questions about breakthrough COVID cases

Some are questioning the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines after the virus took the life of Colin Powell – former US Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, even though he was fully vaccinated.

The cancer survivor was not only fully-vaccinated but also received his booster shot. However, the vaccine wasn’t effective for the 85-year-old — who reportedly had a pre-existing blood condition known as multiple myeloma, which health officials say worked against the vaccine.

Powell’s death brings to the surface questions many people have been asking about breakthrough cases, and what they mean when it comes to vaccine efficacy.

St. Luke’s Infectious Disease expert, Dr. Andrew Thompson, said vaccines were designed to prevent severe instances of COVID-19, like the need for hospitalization and death.

But to the suprise of many, the shot was never a guarantee for lifelong immunity against the virus.

"No one has claimed that these vaccines are 100% effective," said Dr. Thompson. "We know, and the science tells us, that they’re about 90% effective. That means there are 10% of people who the vaccine might not work in, who are going to have breakthrough cases."

For people in older age groups with pre-existing conditions, like the former secretary of state, Colin Powell, the vaccine is likely not as effective in providing immunity.

Thompson says that is the reason experts are counting on everyone else to get vaccinated.

"It’s to help protect those vulnerable adults and children whose immune systems might not work very well. They don’t have the ability to benefit from vaccines because their immune systems just can’t make those good antibodies."

A common misconception with the vaccine is that since breakthrough cases exist, the vaccines themselves aren’t working. Experts say that vaccines are preventing more severe disease, higher transmission and more widespread infection.

Varying ages, pre-existing conditions and weak antibodies all play a factor in a person’s ability to develop immunity toward the virus.

Thompson explained that the reason there are different recommendations for different age groups when it comes to booster shots… is because its all about whose immune system needs the help.

All Minnesota flags have been ordered to fly at half-staff through sunset on Friday night to honor the life of General Colin Powell.