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Compromised & COVID-19: Experts stress the importance of vaccination

General Colin Powell died Monday after battling COVID-19 complications, Powell was also immunocompromised due to Blood Cancer.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — News of General Colin Powell's death has left many heavy hearts around the world - including here in Western New York.

Powell died Monday after battling complications from COVID-19 - he was fully vaccinated.

He also had a history of multiple myeloma - a rare blood cancer.

Dr. Elizabeth Griffiths, a Hematology/Oncology Specialist at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, says it's very common for people, like General Powell, with significantly lower immune systems to battle when it comes to fighting an infection - of any kind. 

"In general, even those people who are not necessarily getting a lot of therapy are less likely to mount an effective immune response to vaccination against anything," Griffiths says.

Griffiths is also part of the Covid-19 & Cancer Consortium, a group of over 120 cancer centers and organizations that work to collect data on people who have or have had a history of cancer and have been diagnosed with COVID-19, like General Powell.

That doesn't mean one shouldn't get vaccinated. In fact, being immunocompromised is a reason to get vaccinated, Dr. Griffith emphasizes. But it's important to also understand what is happening inside the body.

"If you get a vaccine, you might not be able to make an appropriate antibody response," Dr. Griffiths says. If I'm giving you chemo that targets those cells, and then fundamentally, those individuals who have blood cancer that affects that cell lineage are less likely to be able to respond just as a matter of course."

This is why it's important, as a community, to stay educated when it comes to the importance of vaccination.

"I strongly encourage family members and social contacts, contacts of my patients, to be vaccinated," Dr. Griffiths says. "The best way, if you can't mount an immune response, is to make sure your circle is vaccinated."

Dwayne Smith is a long-time phlebotomist at Roswell Park. He was the second person on the staff to get vaccinated when vaccines were made available last December. As a black man raising a young black son, Smith says he realized immediately the importance getting vaccinated and the message it would send to his son and to other people of color in the community.

Smith says, he's also very proud to know General Powell was of like mind.

"What a role model he was and someone that every African American male should be able to look up to and strive to be. We all have to do our part, just like he did," Smith says.