President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on Monday memorialized the half-million Americans killed by the coronavirus, a staggering toll that eclipses U.S. combat deaths from major wars of the 20th century.
The candle-lit ceremony at the White House evoked an inauguration-eve event to recognize the 400,000 who died, underscoring the fast-moving severity of a winter-holiday surge across the U.S. that is now beginning to ease.
In his remarks, the president rejected the idea that “ordinary Americans” had succumbed to the disease.
“There’s no such thing, there’s nothing ordinary about them. The people we lost were extraordinary. They spanned generations,” Mr. Biden said from the Cross Hall in the White House. “But just like that, so many of them took their final breath alone in America.”
The Johns Hopkins University coronavirus tracker — a closely watched dashboard — said the death toll had exceeded the somber milestone in the late afternoon.
Mr. Biden ordered flags on federal property to fly at half-staff for five days, and congressional leaders from both parties said they would hold a moment of silence on the steps of the Capitol late Tuesday.
Solemn reflection on once-unfathomable loss comes at a time of growing optimism about the course of the pandemic, with over one in 10 Americans receiving an initial dose of vaccine and 5% of the population fully vaccinated.
The vaccination campaign is ramping up as the daily case-count plummets, leading to a drop in average daily deaths to less than 2,000 from over 3,000 a week ago.
Hospital stays are down to levels seen before the winter spike, though remain higher than numbers during a summer surge, leaving doctors cautiously optimistic but fearful that complacency will lead to a relapse.
“I think many of us are just holding our breath. We remain hopeful, but are grounded in caution,” said Panagis Galiatsatos, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and critical-care doctor who treats COVID-19 patients.
Scientists say the positive trend line is likely due to better adherence with masking and physical distancing, plus the early effects of vaccination and whatever natural immunity is out there from prior infection, though the country remains far from the “herd immunity” needed to control the virus.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said despite the improved outlook, Mr. Biden felt it was important on a “personal level and human level to mark the lives lost over the past year.”
“We have to resist becoming numb to the sorrow,” Mr. Biden said. “You have to remember. And it’s also important to do that as a nation.”
It was a contrast to President Trump, who defiantly took off his mask at the site — after his own bout with COVID-19 — and tended to focus on sunnier days ahead through groundbreaking therapies against the virus and vaccines that were developed in record time during his presidency.
The first official U.S. death from the coronavirus was recorded on Feb. 28 in the Seattle area. However, coroners in Santa Clara County, California, later determined a pair of deaths earlier that month could be blamed on COVID-19.
Today, the U.S. death toll is roughly the size of the population of Atlanta or Kansas City. People with underlying health conditions and older Americans have been most likely to die from COVID-19, with about 95% of deaths occurring in those 50 and older, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analysis of partial death data.
High-population California recently eclipsed New York as the state with the most COVID-19 deaths overall, with over 49,000 compared to 46,000-plus, while New Jersey has seen the highest share of deaths per 100,000 residents, at 257.
Statements on the grim milestone bled into the political wrangling over Mr. Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan, with Democratic leaders pointed to the 500,000 mark as a sign the job isn’t done while Republicans urged the White House to fine-tune the plan to make it more targeted.
“Members of Congress join Americans in prayer for the lives lost or devastated by this vicious virus,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said. “As we pray, we must act swiftly to put an end to this pandemic and to stem the suffering felt by so many millions. With the passage of President Biden’s American Rescue Plan this week, the American people will know that Help Is On The Way.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Democrats are pushing a relief package that ignores recent momentum against the virus and “looks like something you’d pass to blunt another year of shutdowns, not to help guide a smart and proactive recovery.”
Despite the wrangling, Mrs. Pelosi and Mr. McConnell joined Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy in announcing a moment of silence for COVID-19’s victims at 6:15 p.m. Tuesday.
The U.S. death toll is by far the highest of any country in the world, though it is unclear how detailed or transparent other high-population nations were about documenting their deaths.
The American case-fatality rate — the share of people who test positive and then die — is 1.8%, putting the nation in good stead compared to many large European countries, although the U.S. has lost more people per share of population than places like France and Germany.
The U.K., which battled a fast-moving mutation of the virus but is slowly easing its lockdown rules, fares worse than the U.S. in both forms of accounting, according to Johns Hopkins University data.
The first sign that COVID-19 would be a deadly threat to the U.S. showed up in a Kirkland, Washington, nursing home almost one year ago.
Nearly three dozen people in the facility died, forcing the nation to grapple with a health scare that had gripped China, South Korea, Iran and Italy and was blanketing the U.S. without adequate testing to track it.
The situation improved after Americans agreed to work and learn from home, if able, through March and April, though the virus crested in the South and West in the summer before emergency measures brought it under control — only for the Midwest to see flare-ups on the cusp of winter.
By mid-November, it was a full-blown crisis across the country, particularly in colder places like Wisconsin and the Dakotas.
Nursing homes battered by the crisis were prioritized for vaccination after shots were approved in mid-December. Deaths declined from 6,000 in the week ending Dec. 20 to about 2,000 in the week ending Feb. 7 — a 67% drop, according to the most recent federal data.
There is also mounting evidence, particularly in fast-vaccinating Israel, that initial doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine are slashing the viral load in immunized persons so, beyond avoiding disease, they’re less likely to transmit the virus to others.
A new study from Scotland also found getting an initial dose of the Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccines greatly staved off the risk of hospitalization.
Aggressive variants of the coronavirus threaten to upend America’s progress in coming down the other side from a winter-holiday spike. Some drugmakers have begun to develop booster shots that can address the variants, including one detected in South Africa that appears to diminish the power of vaccines.
The Food and Drug Administration released guidance on Monday that said tweaked vaccines would have to undergo testing but not a repeat of massive human trials, likely speeding their path to approval.
“We know the country is eager to return to a new normal and the emergence of the virus variants raises new concerns about the performance of these products,” acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock said. “By issuing these guidances, we want the American public to know that we are using every tool in our toolbox to fight this pandemic, including pivoting as the virus adapts.”