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Expert helps untangle vaccine misinformation that has followed Colin Powell's death


Complications from COVID-19. That's the cause of Secretary Colin Powell's death yesterday. Powell was 84. He had underlying health issues, and he was vaccinated against the coronavirus. That outcome is extremely rare among the fully vaccinated, who account for far less than 1% of COVID deaths. Joining us now to talk more about this is Dr. Hyung Chun, professor of cardiology at Yale, who studies the effectiveness of COVID vaccines.

Thanks for joining us.

HYUNG CHUN: Thanks for having me.

MCCAMMON: Already following Powell's death, we've seen misinformation online about the effectiveness of COVID vaccines, suggesting falsely, of course, that they don't work. How concerned are you, though, about how this kind of high-profile death under these circumstances might complicate efforts to help people understand the effectiveness and importance of these vaccines?

CHUN: Yeah. I mean, I think it is clearly evident that these vaccines are highly effective in prevention of these severe cases and death related to COVID-19. We are seeing that there are these rarer cases, such as in Secretary Powell's case, that these breakthrough cases do rarely occur that do result in death. But the booster shots that are now being considered by the FDA and being approved are highly important in preventing these breakthrough cases.

MCCAMMON: We are talking about this because of the death of former Secretary Powell. We know that occasionally there are breakthrough cases, and occasionally they result in death. We don't have Powell's chart in front of us. But as a doctor, when you hear about someone with this kind of profile - over 80 years old, someone who's had Parkinson's, who's had cancer - what do you hear there?

CHUN: Yeah. What we're seeing recently is that these breakthrough cases that require hospitalization tend to be in the older population and in some of our recent studies affecting population who are older than 60 years and also patients who are having underlying medical conditions that may attenuate the immune response to the vaccines themselves, such as diabetes, prior history of cancer and also being on any medication that may suppress the immune response, such as these immunosuppressive agents that patients who may be on who have conditions, like rheumatoid arthritis or autoimmune disease.

MCCAMMON: You're somebody who looks at this data all the time, right? I am talking to you. I'm trusting scientists like you, and I do trust scientists like you that, you know, you're experts on this. You're doing this research, you know. But there are a lot of Americans that struggle with that trust, I think. And I wonder, as somebody who knows firsthand the reality of these vaccines, how does it feel to realize that you're walking through a world where something like a third of eligible Americans just don't accept the work that you're doing?

CHUN: I mean, what is clear from our research and research from many other individuals is that these vaccines are highly effective. The risk of some of the side effects associated with the vaccines, such as myocarditis - you have a far greater risk of developing myocarditis or inflammation of the heart related to the COVID-19 infection itself than the vaccine. So I think that's an important point to point out.

MCCAMMON: What does all of this say about the importance of everyone getting vaccinated not only for their own well-being but for the good of older people or immunocompromised people who may not be as well-protected by the vaccines?

CHUN: I've heard arguments that, for some parents of young children - you know, it is highly unlikely that my kid, even if they catch COVID-19, will get severely ill with COVID-19. And I think that is true based on the data that we have seen so far. But at the same time, I think the transmission of COVID-19 from a child to their parent or their grandparent, who may be at a much higher risk of developing severe illness - if that is something that we can prevent, I think that it is important aspect of the vaccines that we really have to take into consideration.

MCCAMMON: Dr. Hyung Chun studies the effectiveness of COVID vaccines.

Thanks so much for joining us.

CHUN: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
Lauren Hodges is an associate producer for All Things Considered. She joined the show in 2018 after seven years in the NPR newsroom as a producer and editor. She doesn't mind that you used her pens, she just likes them a certain way and asks that you put them back the way you found them, thanks. Despite years working on interviews with notable politicians, public figures, and celebrities for NPR, Hodges completely lost her cool when she heard RuPaul's voice and was told to sit quietly in a corner during the rest of the interview. She promises to do better next time.
Justine Kenin

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