Millions of people in the world have read the story of Kristin Lowery, the Escalon mother who posted anti-vaccine messages and opposed mask mandates on Facebook and then died of COVID-19 on Sept. 15.
Photographs of her, along with the story citing social media comments, appeared in news sites in the United States, England and other countries, with some headlines asking: “Who was Kristen Lowery?”
From all appearances, the 40-year-old Escalon mother of four trusted in vaccines like most parents until three or four years ago, before she changed her mind and took to wearing a shirt that read: “I trusted them. Never again.”
Her Facebook page indicates Lowery home-schooled her children. She believed in God and was in agreement with the Moms for Liberty movement, which says it challenges government overreach and has generated headlines in opposing mask mandates in schools.
In July, Lowery posted that a Moms for Liberty chapter should be organized in San Joaquin County.
Lowery grew up in Escalon, moved away for a time and then returned, a friend said.
Her death from COVID-19 leaves behind four children.
She wasn’t “the monster they are making her out to be,” said Amber Qualls, a close friend. “We can’t even bury her. “This world is cruel and disgusting and people would show up to protest it. Her kids are grieving hard for her.”
Qualls has suggested that Lowery stopped trusting vaccines when she thought her young daughter had ill effects from one of the vaccines given her as a baby. Qualls said the child has food intake issues today.
The National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program says that life-saving vaccines, like many medicines, can cause side effects, “but most are very rare and very mild.” According to the federal program’s website, some health problems that follow vaccinations are not caused by vaccines, and severe allergic reactions are very rare.
Qualls said her friend was open-minded enough that she gave help to Amber’s mother in researching and choosing a coronavirus vaccine. “She helped my mother. My mom is vaccinated now,” Qualls said.
Lowery’s story got attention from many who argue that the mother of four would still be alive if she herself had been vaccinated against COVID-19.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” Qualls said. “The division. She hated drama, she hated conflict. She would do anything in her power to stop an argument.”
The Stanislaus County Health Services Agency says that 92 percent of COVID-19 deaths in the county have been unvaccinated people and some with partial vaccination. The vaccines developed by companies such as Pfizer and Moderna are known to prevent a COVID infection from resulting in serious illness or death.
The chief executive officer of Memorial Medical Center in Modesto told county supervisors this past week that 19 of 20 patients who die from COVID-19 in the hospital don’t have vaccine protection.
County health officials do not release the ages of individuals who die from COVID-19. But the delta variant that has dominated the current surge has taken more of a toll on the younger-adult population, which has lower vaccination rates.
County public health has tallied 25 deaths in the 25 to 54 age group since July 1. Of the 159 deaths since the delta surge began in July, 36 percent have been people age 64 or younger and 64 percent have been 65 or older.
The delta surge has changed last year’s pattern in which upward of 80 percent of COVID deaths were adults 65 and older. County health officials credit the vaccine for the lower mortality among seniors during the delta surge. Almost 70% are fully vaccinated and close to 80% are at least partly vaccinated, while the full vaccination rate is 47 percent in adults 18 to 49 and just under 10 percent are partly vaccinated.
In San Joaquin County, where Lowery lived, the pandemic has claimed the lives of 133 people between the ages of 18 and 49 over the past 18 months.
Anecdotally, The Modesto Bee has reported the stories of three younger adults in the region who died as the delta variant raged — Stephanie Longstreth of Salida, Philly Baird of Ripon — who openly regretted not being vaccinated — and Lowery.
By coincidence, all three were 40 years old. Two of the deaths left behind a total of 10 children who will continue life without their mothers.
In a politically divided environment, Stanislaus County has managed to build a full vaccination rate of 53 percent among eligible residents age 12 and older, which is well below the full vaccination rate of 64 percent nationwide. San Joaquin County’s vaccination rate is 56.7 percent for eligible residents.
Why do some parents reject vaccines?
Professor Martin Hagger, who teaches health psychology at UC Merced, said a number of factors contribute to vaccine hesitancy.
Hagger said fears and concerns about the mumps, measles and rubella (MMR) vaccine for young children and a reputed link to autism — which was substantially debunked — created negative publicity around vaccines, and the attitudes are still pervasive. The Pew Research Center found in 2015 that 9 percent of Americans think the MMR vaccine is unsafe, while 7 percent have doubts.
Claims from celebrities and other high-profile figures against vaccines have eroded trust in the shots that eliminated polio and prevent epidemics of measles, rubella, diphtheria and pertussis. Today, the anti-vaccine movement has beliefs about the politics behind vaccines, including conspiracy theories the government is taking people’s choices away, Hagger said.
“There are deep-seated beliefs about those concerns,” Hagger said, adding the unprecedented speed of developing the COVID vaccines exacerbated concerns about vaccine safety among doubters.
Hagger doesn’t see much opportunity for agreement between vaccine skeptics and those who believe vaccinations are the solution to the pandemic.
“In combating that, it does no good to beat them over the head with science, telling them they are wrong,” Hagger said. “People don’t like to be told they are wrong.”
As a public health expert, Hagger recommends clear and consistent messages to promote COVID vaccinations to the public. “The alternative is clear messaging that focuses on the benefits you will gain, but also on how society can gain by getting the vaccine,” he said. “Everyone wants to get back to normal and stop wearing masks, and no lockdowns.”
As of Friday, a gofundme account to raise funds for Lowery’s funeral expenses had raised $13,776.
Janet Vallotton, the organizer, wrote that funds remaining after funeral costs will be devoted to the care of Lowery’s children.
“There should be more (people) like her out there,” Qualls said “She had a heart of gold.”