The United States on Monday passed a milestone that seemed unimaginable a year ago when the coronavirus pandemic began, surpassing 500,000 deaths from COVID-19.
At 5 p.m. ET, the Washington National Cathedral began ringing its bells 500 times in memory of the Americans who had lost their lives to the disease, and the American flag atop the White House was lowered to half-staff.
An hour later, President Biden addressed the nation from the White House.
“Today we mark a truly grim, heartbreaking milestone: 500,071 dead. That’s more Americans who have died in one year in this pandemic than in World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War combined," Biden said, reading that figure off a small card he said he carried in his pocket with the updated total.
Biden, who lost his first wife and daughter in a car accident in 1972 and endured the death of his elder son, Beau, in 2015 to a brain tumor, spoke personally to those who had suffered a loss in the pandemic.
“I know what it’s like to not be there when it happens," Biden said. "I know what it’s like when you are there, holding their hands as they look in your eye and they slip away. That black hole in your chest, you feel like you’re being sucked into it. The survivor’s remorse, the anger, the questions of faith in your soul.”
According to Johns Hopkins University, the half-million tally of U.S. deaths represents the most reported COVID-19 deaths of any country in the world. (The second-highest total, 246,000, is in Brazil.) More than 28 million Americans have tested positive for the coronavirus, out of more than 111,642,000 cases recorded worldwide.
In his remarks on Monday, Biden reflected on the personal aspect of the pandemic, telling his audience to avoid seeing the victims as mere statistics and speaking to the grief experienced by those who felt the loss personally.
“For those who have lost loved ones, this is what I know: They’re never truly gone. They’ll always be part of your heart," Biden said. "I know this as well, and it seems unbelievable, but I promise you the day will come when the memory of the loved one you lost will bring a smile to your lips before a tear to your eye.”
The United States passed 100,000 COVID-19 deaths in May. In November, the U.S. death toll hit 250,000.
In late March 2020, shortly after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus crisis a pandemic, members of then-President Donald Trump’s White House coronavirus task force projected between 100,000 and 200,000 American deaths if U.S. citizens practiced social distancing guidelines “almost perfectly.”
Trump, however, repeatedly sought to downplay those figures. (“Now we’re going toward 50, I’m hearing, or 60,000 people. One is too many. I always say it,” Trump said on April 19. “But we would have had millions of deaths instead of — it looks like we’ll be at about a 60,000 mark, which is 40,000 less than the lowest number thought of.”)
Worldwide, there have been nearly 2.5 million COVID deaths, per Johns Hopkins data. But the actual case and death totals are likely much higher, as many countries do not have extensive testing — and others, like Russia, have been suspected of underreporting COVID-19 cases and deaths.
There are, however, reasons for hope.
The average numbers of daily deaths and hospitalizations in the U.S. have fallen to the lowest levels since before Thanksgiving. On Sunday, the country reported 56,079 new confirmed cases and 1,235 deaths.
While the U.S. rollout of a coronavirus vaccine during the transition between administrations was slow, it has picked up in recent weeks, part of a push by President Biden to administer 100 million doses in his first 100 days in office.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 75 million total doses of the two coronavirus vaccines have been distributed in the U.S., and more than 63 million have been administered.
More than 43 million Americans have received at least one dose of the vaccine, the CDC said. More than 18 million, or less than 6 percent of the U.S. population, have received the two doses needed to be considered fully vaccinated.
Health officials, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, have said more than 70 percent of Americans need to be fully vaccinated to end the pandemic.
Over the weekend, Fauci cautioned that while case totals are on a steep decline, now is not the time to get complacent.
"The baseline of daily infections is still very, very high,” he said on NBC's "Meet the Press." “It’s not the 300,000 to 400,000 that we had some time ago, but we want to get that baseline really, really, really low before we start thinking that we are out of the woods.”
Asking Americans to join him in a moment of silence on Monday to remember the victims, Biden also made sure to emphasize that better days lie ahead.
“Let this not be a story of how far we fell, but of how far we climb back up. We can do this,” the president said, adding, “This nation will smile again. This nation will know sunny days again. This nation will know joy again and as we do we’ll remember each person we’ve lost, the lives they lived and the loved ones they left behind.”
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