Media outlets should not use Colin Powell's death to push vaccine hesitancy, either explicitly or inadvertently

Articles about Colin Powell's death from COVID-19 complications should include his multiple myeloma diagnosis

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell has died after contracting COVID-19. In covering his passing, The Associated Press wrote that he was fully vaccinated but has not yet included his diagnosis of multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer that hurts the ability of a body to respond to infections.

The AP tweet and story about Powell mention his COVID-19 diagnosis and the fact that he was fully vaccinated, but they do not mention cancer or myeloma at all.

Similarly, The New York Times’ tweet and story about Powell’s passing mentioned his COVID-19 diagnosis and  vaccination but initially did not mention cancer or myeloma at all; it was later added:

He died of complications of Covid-19, his family said in a statement. He had been fully vaccinated and was treated at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in Bethesda, Md., where he died, his family said. Mr. Powell had undergone treatment for multiple myeloma, which compromised his immune system, a spokeswoman said.

This comes as Fox News figures, like “straight news” anchor John Roberts here, explicitly use Powell’s death to raise questions about vaccines.

John Roberts Colin Powell

Of course, vaccines are not going to fully prevent cases or death, just as not everybody who wears a seat belt survives a car accident, though wearing a seat belt obviously increases one’s chances significantly. As The Washington Post’s Philip Bump writes, the vaccines are meant to be in concert with other policies that reduce the number of cases:

It’s not the case that this demonstrates that vaccines are futile or not useful. Instead, it’s a reminder that the virus still poses a risk to the elderly, even when vaccinated, and therefore that the goal should be to tamp down on the spread of the virus broadly. If Powell had been at little risk of contracting the virus because transmission rates were low, he would have been at almost zero risk of dying from it. But, instead, his death comes at a time when more than 80,000 people a day are still contracting the virus and more than 1,500 people are dying from it — about as many people as were dying in early April 2020.

The reason that health experts advocate vaccination is, in part, because it offers increased protection to individuals both from infection and death. But that to some extent is the icing on the cake. The broader advantage in widespread vaccination is that the virus has far less ability to spread, given how well protected the vaccinated are against contracting the virus. This is the goal of reaching herd immunity, creating a situation in which the virus can’t spread because it can’t find hosts without antibodies prepared to fight it. When the United States achieves herd immunity, 84-year-olds with preexisting conditions will be better protected against death simply because they will be at much lower risk of contracting the virus.

Of course, Fox News and right-wing media are using sophistry about vaccines to directly attack the need to “tamp down on the spread of the virus broadly.”

But Powell’s death should not be used to either explicitly or inadvertently push vaccine hesitancy, and more broadly it can serve as a reminder that the pandemic is certainly not over – and that loved ones across the country are still vulnerable, in part because of right-wing media attacks on vaccines.