Kelly Ernby stood against vaccine mandates. Her death from COVID made her a symbol

Former Orange County GOP Assembly candidate Kelly Ernby.
(Ben Chapman)

After Kelly Ernby succumbed to complications related to COVID-19 at age 46, the internet exploded with comments blaming her for her own death.

As an outspoken critic of vaccine mandates and a rising star in the Orange County Republican Party, Ernby has become, postmortem, a lightning rod for a conflict that has split a nation entering the third year of a pandemic.

Ernby, a Huntington Beach resident, was not vaccinated against COVID-19 when she died earlier this week, according to friends.


A collage Ernby posted on Facebook Christmas Day — posing with her husband, Axel, at the harbor; her dog, Nixon, at the beach; her late mother’s headstone — drew thousands of comments.

Some offered condolences to her family and fond remembrances. Many others were strangers who slammed Ernby.

“She did this to herself,” one person said.

Another wrote, “Congratulations on winning your very own Darwin award.”

The local Republican Party activist, 46, was considering another Assembly run. She often spoke of her opposition to government vaccine mandates.

Jan. 3, 2022

Ernby’s death highlighted simmering tensions between those who see mandates as government overreach and those who see vaccines as vital to ending the pandemic.

The fast-spreading Omicron variant has heightened the debate, as vaccines and boosters have been shown to dramatically reduce the risk of serious illness.

In California, about 75% of adults have had at least one vaccine dose, according to The Times tracker.


But vaccine hesitancy has been evident in many cross-sections of the state, including among conservatives in places like suburban Orange County.

Some of Ernby’s friends are outraged by the attacks, saying her stance against mandatory vaccine rules was just a small part of who she was.

Kelly Ernby was an anti-vax Republican from Orange County. When she died of COVID this week, many liberals took grim satisfaction.

Jan. 6, 2022

She was also a respected prosecutor who specialized in consumer protection and environmental enforcement.

After losing a bid for state Assembly, she threw herself into grass-roots Republican organizing.

Many Orange County Republicans praised her behind-the-scenes work and dedication to conservative values.

“This wasn’t just somebody who wanted to hear what you had to say because you’re a voter, and then we’ll move on to the next voter. She cared,” said Orange County Supervisor Don Wagner. “She was the right sort of person and personality that I want to encourage in the Republican Party.”

Ernby’s friend Ben Chapman, who is chairman of the Greater Costa Mesa Republicans, said he received “hundreds of disgusting tweets, emails and comments on social media” after her death.

“Kelly was not anti-vaccine, she was anti-mandatory vaccine — a belief she and I have always shared,” Chapman said in a text message. “She always put a smile on our faces and encouraged us to fight for what we believe in.”

Chapman, who is also not vaccinated against COVID-19, said on Twitter that he will never get vaccinated or urge his friends to get vaccinated. And he had pointed words for those who criticized Ernby and others for not getting the shots.

“However, I will not shame my friends who choose to get vaccinated,” he added. “This is what separates civil human beings from the blindsided partisan unhinged. Your bigoted tweets to me will never change our minds.”

Vaccinated people without underlying health conditions in Ernby’s age group rarely fall severely ill or die of COVID-19, whether they have contracted earlier variants or the Omicron variant now sweeping across the nation, data have shown.

Ernby was staunchly opposed to vaccine mandates even before the pandemic. In late 2019, she spoke publicly against a new California law tightening immunization rules for California schoolchildren.

“I don’t think that the government should be involved in mandating what vaccines people are taking,” she said at an online town hall. “I think that’s a decision between doctors and their patients ... If the government is going to mandate vaccines, what else are they going to mandate?”

Ernby grew up in San Diego and graduated from the University of San Diego School of Law.

After working at the Irvine offices of Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher, she took a 70% pay cut to join the Orange County district attorney’s office.

While working as a prosecutor, Ernby earned a master’s degree in public administration from USC.

In May 2019, she launched her campaign for state Assembly in the 74th District, which is anchored by Irvine.

That Christmas, her husband surprised her with a pair of red boxing gloves, which became a symbol for her campaign.

“We have a sense of humor here in the Ernby household,” she said in a video posted to her Twitter at the time. “He knows I’m a fighter ... and he thought maybe I’d need some gloves because I’m going to fight for you in Sacramento.”

As a political newcomer, she lost in the primary to Newport Beach Councilwoman Diane Dixon.

But Ernby wanted to stay involved.

In 2020, she was elected to the Orange County GOP central committee — a largely behind-the-scenes position.

She took on the role of precinct chairman, appointing captains for each of the county’s cities to coordinate hundreds of volunteers to help campaign for conservative candidates.

She took the helm at a time when the party’s volunteer efforts were floundering following the loss of several key seats to Democratic candidates two years earlier.

“She really wanted to bring in a new dimension to the Republican Party,” said Dixon, her primary opponent. “She was smart, and she was working really hard to build back the party in Orange County ... and she’s made a difference. She had a political future.”

When Greg Raths received a text early Monday asking if he’d heard “the news” about Ernby, he assumed she was running for Assembly again.

Instead, Raths, a councilman in Mission Viejo, learned that his friend and fellow Republican had died.

They met when they were both campaigning for office — she for the Assembly, he for U.S. Congress.

The two bonded over their shared values and the military. Both of Ernby’s parents served in the Navy, and her brother was a Marine. Raths was a Marine fighter pilot.

Ernby and Raths knocked on doors together in neighborhoods where their districts overlapped. After a five-minute conversation with a voter, Ernby would walk away with a vote for herself and one for Raths, he said.

She addressed him by his pilot call sign: Snake. He made up one for her too — Kell Bell.

“She was young and vibrant,” Raths said, his voice catching with emotion. “I remember when she would give me a hug, she was so strong, just a strong woman. She was a fireball.”