2 years since COVID-19 lockdown in Bay Area, here's what has changed

It’s hard to forget toilet paper hoarding, the scramble to quickly disinfect surfaces, or being sent home to work because a bustling office could be a breeding ground for the deadly coronavirus that we knew little about.

It was mid-March 2020, and the world was entering the worst global pandemic in modern history. Millions would become infected. More than 970 thousand Americans would die from COVID-19.

Two years later, most shelves are stocked with paper products again, we now know sanitizing countertops is futile, and people are transitioning back to their workplaces.

As the pandemic unfolded around the world and the nation, the Bay Area was on the frontier of what was to become for the rest of the country.

It was two years ago today – St. Patrick’s Day – that six of the nine Bay Area counties swiftly enacted shelter-in-place orders, becoming the first region in the nation to effectively put people on lock-down in their homes. 

Even driving, for non-essential workers, was banned at certain hours of the day. What seemed like something out of science fiction movie, was quickly becoming the new normal for millions. 

No one dared go anywhere without a tightly secured mask and everywhere you looked there were bold reminders about social distancing.

But, two years later, California health officials now say that the development of new tools and strategies will prevent future lockdowns, mask mandates and restrictions. With a holiday omicron surge behind us, doctors and experts say that mass vaccination is what we must strive for moving forward. 

"Vaccination is the most important thing," state epidemiologist Dr. Erica Pan said. "We have a lot more immunity under our belts so that is really helping keep people out of the hospital and dying."

But over the course of the pandemic, gaps in public health were exposed, especially surrounding the most vulnerable including seniors, minority groups, and essential workers.

"This pandemic really magnified the differences and disparities and really impacted people who didn’t have choices," Pan said.

Resources, funding, and priority was devoted to the homeless, farmworkers, and those living in low-income neighborhoods, with a goal to limit infections.

While doctors say new variants will emerge indicating the virus is not going away, expanded testing, new treatments, and masking in large congregate settings is proving to better defend against serious viral spread.

Data shows most hospitalizations with COVID-19 are among the unvaccinated or those with underlying medical conditions.

In April 2020, before vaccines were available, Fresno pastor Mark Wallace was on a ventilator for weeks. He said he miraculously won his battle with the virus.

"I never want anyone to go through what I went through," said Wallace. "It was a terrible, horrible process. I totally believe everybody ought to be vaccinated."

Doctors say vaccines have saved countless lives, and while breakthrough cases are possible, symptoms tend to be milder and hospitalizations less likely.

Bay Area health officials loosened masking rules and eliminated capacity requirements at stores and restaurants over the past several weeks.

After shuttering for more than a year, San Francisco staple, Tadich Grill, is one of many restaurants back in business.

"We’re starting to crawl back," general manager Kurt Niver said. "We’re obviously not there yet, but it is going in the right direction."

Gone are the days of empty booths and take-out dinners. Instead, it’s back to school, back to the office and back to shopping at actual stores.

While the virus may forever be living among us, doctors stress that tools to predict and protect against future variants will allow life to return to a sense of normalcy.

That’s providing some tourists new confidence, especially as restrictions are loosened, sports are in full swing, and live performances are back.

"I couldn’t be happier to know that I get to meet and interact with people and see their smiles," Nicole Walters who was visiting San Francisco from Los Angeles said. "It’s just good to be back."

Brooks Jarosz is an investigative reporter for KTVU. Email him at brooks.jarosz@fox.com and follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @BrooksKTVU