‘Somebody is killing us’: Intermountain CEO has same cancer as Colin Powell, who died from COVID-19

At-risk blood cancer patients like Marc Harrison rely on others to get vaccinated to build herd immunity.

(Rick Bowmer | AP) Marc Harrison, president and CEO of Intermountain Healthcare, speaks during a news conference Aug. 31, 2021, in Salt Lake City. On Monday, Harrison highlighted the need for more Utahns to get vaccinated in light of Colin Powell's death from COVID-19. Powell had the same type of blood cancer that Harrison has; multiple myeloma leaves patients immunocompromised and at risk of contracting COVID-19 even if they are fully vaccinated.

Dr. Marc Harrison, like Colin Powell was, is fully vaccinated for COVID-19.

But, also like Powell, the Intermountain Healthcare CEO suffers from multiple myeloma — the blood cancer that likely left Powell vulnerable to COVID-19 before he died from the virus this week.

“For people with blood cancers — lymphoma, leukemia, multiple myeloma — only about half of them respond to an mRNA vaccine,” Harrison said Monday, after Powell’s death. Powell, who served as a four-star Army general, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State under George W. Bush, died Monday from the coronavirus.

While the overwhelming majority of Americans dying from COVID-19 right now are unvaccinated, the virus still is claiming victims from the 2% of people who are immunocompromised by other conditions — such as cancer or organ transplants — as well as by drugs that treat other illnesses, like inflammatory bowel disease, Harrison said.

“Somebody is giving them COVID. Somebody is killing us,” Harrison said. “The surest way to decrease that is for people to get their vaccinations.”

Among the immunocompromised, the vaccine may well be protective, especially with a booster shot, Harrison said. But only about half of patients with blood cancer develop antibodies in response to the vaccine, he said — and only one-third of transplant recipients do.

Harrison, for example, only has one-tenth to one-twentieth of some types of immune cells that are needed for “an adequate immune system.”

“I guarantee you that everybody knows somebody out there like Gen. Powell or like me,” Harrison said. “The way herd immunity works is, we are relying on [others] to take good care of themselves and get vaccinated.”

Despite the state’s slightly-below-average vaccination rate, Utahns, Harrison said, are generally “charitable and good neighbors and very responsible.

“I can only believe that people must really just not understand if they are so cavalier. ... I can’t imagine they don’t care about one out of every 50 people.”

With about two-thirds of eligible Utahns fully vaccinated, Harrison remains vigilant about who he has contact with, frequently masking and asking others’ vaccine status.

But at one recent public meeting, Harrison said, he found himself in a large group of people who were not masking and were not vaccinated. His risks are so elevated that simply being in the room made him eligible for monoclonal antibodies — an effective but limited-supply treatment typically given to high-risk patients who have contracted the virus but have not yet developed serious symptoms.

“It did make me feel not very valued that people are putting their own convenience ahead of my own life and death,” Harrison said.

He declined to specify the meeting. At an August news conference, Harrison urged Utahns to wear masks in public settings, get vaccinated, stop the spread of misinformation, and “put your virtual arms around” health care workers. After a bone marrow transplant and experimental CAR T-cell therapy, his cancer has been in remission.