Colin Powell died Monday from COVID-19-related complications. Medically, that means damage to organs other than the lungs.
"COVID can cause clots that can then go and cause problems throughout the rest of the body," Northwestern Medicine's Dr. Justin Fiala said. "When we talk about complications of COVID, really, what we're talking about is kind of these downstream effects that come along with the critical illness that's caused by the virus."
Powell's underlying health conditions — Parkinson's and multiple myeloma — put him at higher risk of severe COVID, even with vaccination. Myeloma, a blood cancer, makes it harder for the body to fight infection. Research shows those patients don't get as much protection from COVID vaccines.
"Both of those can cause multiple systemic changes in the body," Fiala said. "So that's, you know, changes in multiple organ systems."
Powell's age — 84 — was also a huge risk factor. Powell's COVID case is considered a breakthrough infection, which is getting sick with COVID after being fully vaccinated.
"A breakthrough infection — whether it's Moderna, Pfizer or Johnson and Johnson — the data shows the further you're away from that initial vaccine, full vaccination schedule, the more we've seen breakthrough infections," WorkCare's Dr. Anthony Harris said.
The latest CDC data on breakthroughs from Oct. 12 cites about 31,000 breakthrough cases — roughly 7,000 of those deaths. That is out of 187 million fully vaccinated Americans.
Meanwhile, people like Maricel St. Clair, who had a mild COVID case in August, aren't counted.
"I tested myself in the morning, not thinking for a second I would be positive and it just lit up and I was astonished," St. Clair said. "I could not believe that I was positive for COVID."
"I'm not trying to discourage the vaccinations, right? I am trying to do just the opposite," Harris said. "I want to encourage the booster."
Fiala said, "For the average person getting the vaccine, the chances of ending up in a situation like Colin Powell are very, very low. Now, if somebody has loved ones or themselves has one of the conditions or both of the conditions, more conditions like those that Colin Powell suffered from, they may have more reason to be worried."
In those cases, experts say the best thing to do is the same thing we've heard through much of this pandemic: In addition to vaccination — social distance and wear a mask.