Discover more from Public Notice
Covid vaccines do not offer absolute protection against death. They're still worth taking.
Right-wing media omits key context to spin Colin Powell's death into something it's not.
It apparently comes as news to some right-wing media personalities that Covid vaccines do not confer immortality upon those who take them. But that does not mean they aren’t invaluable for personal and public health.
The spin surrounding the death of Colin Powell requires some discussion of vaccines, their limitations, and their importance.
On Monday morning, the family of Powell, the first Black US Secretary of State and Black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced he had died “due to complications” from Covid-19.
“He was fully vaccinated,” said the family’s statement, which was published on Powell’s Facebook page.
The statement didn’t mention that he had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer that not only reduces the body’s ability to fight infections but can also reduce the effectiveness of Covid vaccines. (Powell also told Bob Woodward in an interview published Monday evening that he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease.)
Public Notice provides independent, reader-supported coverage of US politics and media. Both free and paid subscriptions are available. The best way to support my work is with a paid subscription.
Powell “had been treated for a cancer that severely impairs the immune system, lowering coronavirus vaccine effectiveness,” the Washington Post reported, adding that he “was due to get a coronavirus booster shot when he suddenly became ill [last week] and was hospitalized.”
But the “fully vaccinated” line in the family’s statement quickly became fodder for right-wing media personalities to push a narrative that Powell’s death somehow indicts the efficacy of Covid vaccines. (In fairness, a number of mainstream outlets, including the New York Times, MSNBC, and the Associated Press, also framed their initial coverage of Powell’s death around his vaccination status.)
On Fox & Friends, host Will Cain reacted to the news by saying, “there will also be conversations about the fact that he was fully vaccinated, according to his family, and he died from complications from Covid. We are beginning to see statistics like this grow in frequency.”
“Yes we are,” agreed host Ainsley Earhardt.
“We know that the vaccine does wane over time in its ability to protect you from not just transmission and infection, but from severe complications and hospitalization and obviously death as well,” Cain continued. “We know that it means, and we know that it is beginning to spill over — Covid — into the vaccinated population.”
Later during the show, Cain suggested some sort of coverup is going on, and used Powell’s death to advance the flawed case Fox News programming has been making for weeks against vaccine mandates.
“Fully vaccinated people are being hospitalized and fully vaccinated people are dying from Covid, and here we have a very high-profile example that is going to require more truth, more truth from our government, from our health leaders as well,” he said.
Around that same time, Fox News host John Roberts distilled what Cain was saying into a single tweet, writing that “The fact Colin Powell died from a breakthrough COVID infection raises new concerns about how effective vaccines are long-term.”
But spin like this ignores a couple key pieces of context. First, Powell’s cancer diagnosis. And two, that he was 84 years old.
Given the context he omitted, Roberts was widely criticized for his misleading tweet. He eventually deleted it and followed up with a thread in which he unconvincingly insisted he was being misinterpreted.
Roberts even got indirectly dragged by one of his Fox colleagues live on the air. During a segment that aired early Monday afternoon, Fox News contributor Dr. Nicole Saphier said, “It’s very upsetting to see people taking Colin Powell’s death and using it as, ‘the vaccine didn’t work.’ This is a very specific situation [and] to use someone’s death to try to make a point that really doesn’t carry a lot of weight to it is really frustrating.”
“You had an elderly gentlemen — I know that people don’t like that word — but at the age of 84, he was already vulnerable for Covid-19, and then you add a cancer of the blood, and he is the most vulnerable when it comes to Covid-19,” Saphier added, while Roberts looked on glumly.
Tucker Carlson’s coverage took the irresponsibility up a notch. He began his show on Monday with a monologue about Powell’s death that completely omitted his cancer diagnosis, but spun it as evidence that Americans are “being lied to” by public health authorities about the efficacy of vaccines.
But an elderly person with significant preexisting conditions dying from Covid despite being fully vaxxed is not a refutation of public health science. Let’s consider some of the key facts.
Covid vaccines do not offer absolute protection against death. But they are still worth taking.
According to the CDC, fully vaccinated people are five times less likely to be infected with Covid and more than 10 times less likely to wind up being hospitalized or dying if they are infected. CNN depicted these numbers visually, using CDC data:
This does not mean getting vaccinated provides absolute protection against death, especially if you are elderly and have serious preexisting conditions like Powell did. Nonetheless, on Newsmax, former Ted Cruz campaign official Hal Lambert reacted to Powell’s death by suggesting there’s something wrong with the vaccines because "I believe this is the first time we've seen someone with a breakthrough case that has passed away” — a claim that isn’t even close to true.
Getting vaccinated makes it much less likely — but not impossible — that you’ll get seriously sick. And beyond the personal benefits, getting vaccinated is important for the public good. Powell’s death reinforces this fact. Vaccinated or not, his specific cancer made him more vulnerable to Covid. Being around unvaccinated people is an especially risky proposition for people like him.
Powell’s situation illustrated why it’s a mistake to view vaccination as a mere “personal choice.” Deciding to be unvaxxed actually puts others at risk.
People listen to this stuff, sadly
The way outlets like Fox News and Newsmax covers stories like this matters, because viewers take what they say seriously and behave accordingly.
Research from the Center for Law & Economics and the University of Chicago found a correlation between Fox News viewership and vaccine hesitancy and Fox News viewership and unwillingness to follow public health best practices, respectively. And Morning Consult polling from August indicated that Fox News viewers are significantly more vaccine skeptical than viewers of CNN or MSNBC.
As MSNBC’s Mehdi Hasan explained on Chris Hayes’s show on Monday, Fox News misinformation has been having negative consequences for a long time now:
Instead of course-correcting by using its platform to consistently promote basic public health best practices, Fox too often opts for ill-informed, conspiratorial contrarianism. You can see how someone watching Monday’s Fox & Friends could come away from Cain’s discussion of Powell’s death with the belief that Covid vaccines don’t work, or at least don’t work well enough to bother taking one. Perhaps that person was on the fence about getting vaccinated and now decides against it.
That decision doesn’t just endanger that person. It endangers people around them who might be too young to get vaccinated, or have preexisting conditions like Powell did. And their decision to remain unvaxxed is irrational, because the vaccines are safe and effective, and whatever short-time side effects they have pale in comparison to getting a disease that has now killed more than 700,000 Americans. Fox, however, has filled people’s heads with misleading talking points undermining scientific data and dismissing expert authority when it comes from perceived political enemies like Dr. Anthony Fauci.
And while every now and then the network will feature commentary from someone like Dr. Saphier who’s at least willing to push back on the most egregious instances of anti-vax spin, far too often the Cains of the world are met with nothing but agreement when they twist facts to fit their narrative.