As more people become vaccinated, and with state-issued mask mandates no longer in effect, there are signs of normalcy returning.

But many of those who are immunocompromised or have other serious health conditions can’t afford to let their vigilance wane, even if they see some friends and neighbors doing so. As some others relax, they remain particularly fearful of contracting the coronavirus, knowing they’re among the most vulnerable to its effects and potentially the least protected by inoculation.

And the isolation is everlasting.

Montclairians Al Mercuro, Netania Zagorski and Judith Mills either have family members with medical conditions or have such conditions themselves. For them, the pandemic is far from over. 

Some can’t get vaccinated, like Mills, who has Lupus. Some can’t wear masks, like Mercuro and Zagorski’s children. So as the world is opening up to healthy and vaccinated individuals, they have an extra level of stress due to the continued isolation they have experienced since March 2020, said Alma Schneider, a member of the Montclair People With Disabilities Committee. The volunteer group advises the township government on programs and policies to benefit individuals with disabilities. 

“They are still dealing with all the aspects that everyone is done with. They are the invisible, forgotten population,” Schneider said.

Mills and the Mercuro family say, heading into the pandemic, they were also better prepared than most for a world full of even more contagins. Mills, because of her autoimmune disease, was given her own room when she attended college. She has been washing her hands, wearing masks, leaving her shoes at the door, changing her clothes after returning from errands, social distancing and wiping down surfaces with bleach wipes for years. 

For years, Nancy and Al Mercuro have been social distancing with their daughter Rose, 19. She  has spinal muscular atropha, a rare, monogenic disorder that progressively destroys nerve cells in the brainstem and spinal cord that control essential skeletal muscle activity such as speaking, walking, breathing and swallowing.

It’s important Rose Mercuro not contract a lung or respiratory condition such as pneumonia, which is common with the coronavirus. When Rose contracts pneumonia, which she has six times, she has to be taken to The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, where she typically spends two months recovering, Al Mercuro said. The threat of contracting COVID-19 is high for both Rose Mercuro and her mother, who is her daughter’s sole caretaker.

Al Mercuro, who works for an event marketing company and has volunteered for various Montclair organizations, was not used to isolating. But for his wife and daughter, who has been going to school virtually for years, the isolation has only increased. 

He said his wife still quarantines the mail and home-delivered groceries. The family members don’t order in from restaurants, and no one comes inside the home. Al Mercuro resigned from his volunteer positions, now works remotely from home and doesn’t attend marketing shows anymore. So they didn’t have to risk exposure, township heath workers came to them, giving the family COVID-19 and flu shots on the back porch, he said.  

One silver lining in the pandemic — his daughter’s doctor appointments are now through teleconference, Al Mercuro said. 

Mills says the pandemic brought on even more challenges for those with health issues that she has fought to bring to the forefront.

She said because many people with autoimmune diseases may not look sick or be confined to wheelchairs, people don’t realize the risks they take when they leave their homes — especially with many people still unvaccinated and masks no longer mandated by the state.

After graduating from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey with a master’s degree in biomedical science with a concentration in pharmacology, she was an adjunct professor at Essex County College. She is now an ambassador for the Lupus Foundation of America and the Lupus Research Alliance. 

When the pandemic and lockdown hit, and supermarkets set aside special hours for seniors and those in wheelchairs, she lobbied for special shopping hours for people with disabilities or other significant health conditions. The Whole Foods in Montclair, hearing her request, opened the store an hour earlier for customers with pre-existing health conditions.

Mills has also become a mask advocate. As a mask wearer for years, she was often asked if she was the one with a contagious disease. She often found herself doing advocacy work on planes, educating the public that masks protected her from others who might be carrying infectious viruses.

“I am living proof that masks work,” Mills said. 

In summer of 2020, Mills also joined Montclair’s “mask enforcement” effort, handing out hundreds of masks in area parks. 

“Even with no mask mandate, people should still be wearing them indoors for the good of your community. You don’t know if you are standing next to someone who has an underlying health condition,” Mills said. 

For Zagorski and her two children it’s important that others stay masked up as well. Her children, ages 8 and 3, can’t wear masks because of sensory issues related to autism. She kept her children learning remotely until October, but because of her own ongoing health issues related to contracting COVID-19 in February 2020 and her son’s frustration with virtual learning, she sent them back to school. 

“Because they can’t be vaccinated or wear masks, it’s important that people around them do,” she said. Although they now go to school, the family only attends outdoor events, such as synagogue or family gatherings, with attendees masked.

Until Zagorski’s children can get vaccinated, which she said she will do as soon as it becomes available for their age groups, “it’s important for people to wear masks because some people can’t,” she said.

Because her children are non-verbal, it would be hard for them to convey how they are feeling if they were to become sick. 

Schneider runs a Friday afternoon support group for 270 families with children with disabilities or health conditions. The meetings have mostly remained virtual, but the families need support now more than ever, she said.

“We all know how devastating the year of isolation was before the vaccination. But for these families, the lockdown and fear hasn’t ended. We all now know the long-lasting effects of isolation. It’s especially hard for those with disabilities and their families,” Schneider said. 

Schneider, noting that Invisible Disabilities Week passed recently in October, suggests residents consider they might not realize the strangers next to them or the workers waiting on them may have significant health conditions, and may need protection. And she said we should all support businesses that not only still require masks, but also hire people with disabilities. She pointed to the example of Java Love Coffee Bar, on Bellevue Avenue.

“We all need to stay vigilant for our community. Wear your mask and social distance as long as there's still a risk for those who depend on it,” Schneider said.