In many cases, it also meant that they had to deal with the virus either by themselves or with a loved one.
Restrictions came and went, and widespread vaccination and boosters brought the promise of a return to normalcy, especially as the omicron wave subsided.
But for some, the pandemic has meant one thing – endless isolation in sight.
Sara Anne Willette, a resident of Iowa who has a common variable immune deficiency, said she has spent more than 750 days in lockdown since the pandemic began.
For her, staying inside is a decision on life or death. Her common variable immune deficiency means she has low levels of protective antibodies and is constantly at increased risk of becoming seriously ill.
“If there is anyone in the country who has suffered the most during the lockdown, it is us because no one else will do what is necessary for us not to live in the lockdown,” Willette said.
Prior to COVID-19, Willette had long taken the health precautions implemented nationwide during the pandemic: She wore masks, avoided busy shopping hours, and only walked out of the house for special occasions.
She got sick often and easily, whether it was from a day at the office as a data analyst or a large family reunion. So when the pandemic began, she knew she, her husband and her son would have to isolate themselves completely.
As security measures are abandoned across the country two years later, her husband has been asked to return to work in person. She says their livelihood – literally and professionally – is now at stake.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxed their guidelines for indoor masking in February, when about 90% of Americans could no longer afford to wear face masks inside. The CDC now bases mask recommendations on the local level of COVID-19 cases.
At the same time, most states have dropped COVID-related restrictions in recent months. Hawaii became the final state to maintain an indoor mask mandate, and in many places mask recommendations have been dropped for all but the youngest students.
For those who have been stuck inside for two years, the change in restrictions has made them wonder: when will their isolation end?
“I’m happy to protect myself, but then the ability to protect ourselves is taken away,” she said, referring to the CDC’s relaxation recommendations and a nationwide shift towards “normality.”
Tinu Abayomi-Paul, 49, who is immunocompromised due to previous episodes of cancer, said her two-year shutdown could not match the change in COVID-19 policy. When Texas state-sponsored homeschooling expired, her son went back to a school without COVID-19 restrictions, she said.
“Seven hundred and fifty – seven days in isolation, I do not care. I will do it for the rest of my life, if that is what is necessary. But do not expect me to choose between poverty leading to death or infection, leading to death, “Willette said. “My only direction is ‘dead’.”
“It’s like the first day they came back, I got sick,” Abayomi-Paul said. “I got a lot sicker than I’ve been for decades.”
Her son brought COVID-19 back in February and she now has pneumonia months later. The infection also triggered her chronic lymphocytic leukemia, or CLL, a type of cancer that affects her white blood cells, which helps fight infection, she said, so she re-treats her cancer.
“People want to go to marathons and wear ties for people with cancer, but a mask is too much to ask for. It’s ridiculous,” Abayomi-Paul said.
Charis Hill, 35, who has a systemic inflammatory disease and is taking immunosuppressive medication, has said they have also isolated themselves for the past two years from their home in California.
They had to decide whether to have surgery or not and whether the hospital would take the necessary precautions to make them feel safe.
“I had a really disturbing experience with a doctor who refused to wear his surgical mask properly,” they said. They had the operation performed, but not without concern.
“From that point until the day of surgery, I was not at all focused on surgery, but more focused on fighting for my rights as a disabled person to have a safe health environment.”
Fear of coronavirus continues to surge among cautious Americans. According to a report by the health research organization KFF, even with most local and state restrictions lifted, 59% of respondents reported limiting their behavior, with 42% doing some but not all of their pre-pandemic activities.
Seventeen percent said they do very few of their normal activities.
But 27% say they have essentially returned to life as they were before the COVID-19 pandemic, and 14% of respondents have not changed their behavior.
Those who spoke to ABC News urged executives to continue recommending or demanding public action.
For them, a return to normal is not possible until COVID-19 decreases, and the outside world proves safe for even the most vulnerable.
“We’re not doing anything. And it’s devastating,” said Dawn Gibson, a Michigan woman with the inflammatory disease ankylosing spondylitis, a condition in which the bones of the spine can fuse over time. She said she missed work conferences, baby shows, other important life events – all to stay alive and healthy.
“I feel like I live in a parallel universe. And life and culture and society and just about everything being alive is in the other. I have never felt more forgotten in my life,” she said.
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