Former U.S. Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, who was battling blood cancer, died Monday from COVID complications even though he was fully vaccinated. The 84-year-old's death has left some New Jerseyans with questions about the efficacy of the vaccines.

During a coronavirus response press conference in Trenton on Monday, the Murphy administration was asked by reporters how Powell's death from COVID-19 could happen if he was fully vaccinated.

Dr. Ed Lifshitz, the director of communicable disease services for the New Jersey Department of Health, said vaccinations help the body to produce antibodies that will fight off viruses like COVID, but in older individuals with other serious health conditions like cancer, antibody production may not be as effective or it may be limited or fade more quickly.

“The vaccine is kind of like carrying an umbrella in the rain. You know if it’s pouring out there, if you’re getting exposed to the virus all over the place, you know you can overwhelm your body’s response,” he said.

Lifshitz also pointed out that the antibodies produced by the vaccine are in your blood, not in the places where you're exposed to the virus.

“They’re not for the most part up in your nasal passages or other places where the virus first often comes. It can take hold for example in your nose before your body's antibodies can get up there and fight it off.”

Lifshitz said while the vaccines do boost antibody production, responses vary from person to person. “There are some people who maintain protection well and there are other people, particularly again the older people, who tend to lose immunity faster.”

"In general the older you are, the more preexisting conditions you have, the more likely you’re going to have a bad outcome should you get a breakthrough case,” Lifshitz said.

State Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said while the vaccines do give high rates of protection against COVID, “this virus searches out vulnerable elderly individuals, specifically those with underlying conditions.”

You can contact reporter David Matthau at

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