Be a hero. Save a life!

The news of the day is that former Secretary of State Colin Powell has died - fully vaccinated - from complications of COVID-19. And unfortunately, because we live in an era dominated by hot takes, many people have used this fact to spread misinformation. To argue that vaccines don’t work, or that mandates are useless.

I would like to send you MY take - a lukewarm take, since I thought about this a bit before writing it. My take has nothing to do with the general’s political legacy - if you want THAT kind of take, you need to read another kind of blog. My take is about what we can learn from his death, and how it can help us to save other people. If you are reading this far, you might already agree with me, but maybe use these points to convince others to join us in the fight.

Many people’s decisions about whether or not to comply with recommended public health measures are based on their own personal comfort levels. Whether or not they feel safe eating in a restaurant or attending an indoor event. General Powell’s case is a good illustration of why we should think about other things when making those decisions. It’s an illustration of what the “public” in “public health” really means. It means other people.

Colin Powell was fully vaccinated (but not boosted) against COVID-19. He also had multiple myeloma, a cancer that suppresses the immune system. And he was 84.

No protection is 100%. Fully armed people die of gun violence. Helmeted motorcyclists and seat-belted drivers with air bags die in crashes. People are murdered in cities with plentiful policing. These deaths demonstrate that every lifesaving measure has its limits.

But more to the point here, Colin Powell’s death might not have happened if there wasn’t so much COVID-19 circulating in the community. It might not have happened if a more transmissible strain hadn't become dominant. Both of those are slowed by vaccination. This isn’t as controversial as you might think it is, depending on your social media diet.

Vaccinations do two things. First of all, they make you less likely to die if you get COVID-19. LESS likely. They don’t make you immortal. Just like driving drunk at 100 MPH makes a helmet or a seatbelt less likely to save you, being 84 years old and immunocompromised makes the vaccine less likely to save you. And of course, there are other people with those conditions who HAVE survived COVID due to vaccines.

The second thing that they do is that they reduce transmission, which means they reduce case numbers. And that means that they reduce the number of us who become factories for making variants if we do get it - even if we have an asymptomatic infection.

Another way of reducing transmission is avoiding situations where transmission rates are high - specifically indoor maskless events in regions where there is a lot of circulating virus. This is something that changes over time, so it's worth keeping track of what the local "COVID weather" is in your community to help make these decisions. Forgetting about this and relying on vaccines alone can actually make community transmission worse.

So this is where the PUBLIC health thing kicks in. If you are young and healthy, you have an excellent chance of surviving COVID-19 (although not 100%, and possibly not without lingering symptoms). But remember, when you make that choice to attend an event with a high likelihood of transmission, or to hold off on vaccination “because you feel comfortable with that decision”, it’s not about you. It’s about General Powell and lots of other people like him - old and young - who don’t have the immune system that you have.

Letting COVID-19 rip through the population in hopes of reaching “herd immunity” just means that you are willing to sacrifice some people. Maybe one of those people is someone you love. But you should care about those people, even if you don’t know any of them personally. Because that’s what a good person does.

Colin Powell was too old and sick for HIS vaccine to save his life. But someone else’s might have.