Candlelit Ceremony: Biden Remembers The Half-a-Million Americans Who Died of COVID

Published February 23rd, 2021 - 08:47 GMT
U.S. President Joe Biden leaves after delivering remarks on the more than 500,000 lives lost to COVID-19, in the Cross Hall of the White House February 22, 2021 in Washington, DC. Also on hand for the ceremony were first lady Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and husband Doug Emhoff. Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images/AFP
U.S. President Joe Biden leaves after delivering remarks on the more than 500,000 lives lost to COVID-19, in the Cross Hall of the White House February 22, 2021 in Washington, DC. Also on hand for the ceremony were first lady Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and husband Doug Emhoff. Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images/AFP
Highlights
At the White House Joe Biden ordered flags to half staff for five days of mourning and held a candlelit moment of silence, praying for the dead.

President Joe Biden acknowledged the pain of the nation on Monday as the United States marked more than 500,000 deaths from the coronavirus at a candlelit ceremony at the White House, but he also offered words of hope and healing.

'Today we mark a truly grim heart breaking milestone,' he said in a speech to the nation before praying in silent on the South Portico of the White House where 500 candles were lit to symbolize the 500,000 dead.

'We often hear people described as ordinary Americans. There's no such thing. There was nothing ordinary about them. The people we lost were extraordinary,' he declared.

No other county has had so many deaths from the virus: the U.S. accounts for 20 percent of the nearly 2.5 million coronavirus deaths globally.

But the daily number of deaths and hospitalizations from the coronavirus are dropping fast, and on Monday fell to their lowest levels since before the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.  

There were 1,235 daily deaths recorded in the last 24 hours with figures now at their lowest since the middle of October. 

On Monday, the number of people currently in hospital with the virus fell to 55,403 marking 41 straight days of falling hospitalizations. 

On the same day, the United States marked the grim mileston of 500,000 dead since the start of the pandemic with flags lowered to half staff at the White House, the Capitol and federal buildings around the country. 

In Washington D.C., the bells of the National Cathedral tolled 500 times for every 1,000 Americans who have died from COVID.

After the president spoke, he, Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff stepped outside to the South Portico of the White House for a remembrance ceremony. Surrounded by candles as the sun set, the four bowed their heads as the Marine Band played 'Amazing Grace.'

Biden, in his short five minute speech in the White House Cross Hall, marked the half-million milestone with a combination of hope and grief.

'You're going to be okay,' he said, speaking directly to those who have lost someone to COVID.

He reminded Americans that the virus can affect anyone. 'It's not Democrats and Republicans who are dying from the virus,' he said.

'It's our fellow Americans. It's our neighbors, our friends, our mothers our fathers our sons our daughters, husbands, wives, we have to fight this together as one people as the United States of America,' he said.

He addressed the heartbreak that so many families felt at not being able to say goodbye to their loved ones, noting the cruelty that comes with death in a pandemic.

'So many of them took their final breath alone in America,' he said. 'As a nation, we can't accept such a cruel thing.'

'

That's what has been so cruel,' he said. 'So many of the rituals that help us cope and help us honor those we loved had been available to us.'

Biden said he carries a card in his pocket that contains his daily schedule and the number of infections and deaths from the COVID pandemic.

'Those who have lost loved ones. This is what I know. They're never truly gone. They'll always be part of your heart,' he said.

But even as he spoke of grief he encouraged the country to come together to heal from the pandemic.

'Let this not be a story of how far we fell, but how far we climb back up,' he said.

'Remember so we can heal. To find purpose in the work ahead. To show that there is light in the darkness. This nation will smile again,' he said.

'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. 

'The loved ones that were there left behind. We will get through this. I promise you. My heart aches for you, those of you who are going to it right now. God bless you all. Particularly those who've lost someone,' he said.

Biden last month observed America's COVID-19 deaths on the eve of his inauguration with a sundown ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial's Reflecting Pool. 

Speaker Nancy Pelosi marked the death toll with a moment of silence on the House floor on Monday morning.

Pelosi asked everyone in the Capitol 'to rise for a moment of silence in remembrance of more than 500,000 Americans who passed away from the COVID-19 virus.' 

She also ordered the flags in the Capitol at half-staff and will join her fellow Congressional leaders - Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell and House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy - in a moment of silence on the Capitol stairs at sundown. 

A little more than a year after the first COVID death in the country, the United States has hit the half-million mark. 

No other country has had so many deaths from the virus. The U.S. accounts for 20 percent of the nearly 2.5 million coronavirus deaths globally, though the true numbers are thought to be significantly greater because many cases were overlooked early in the outbreak.

That equals the number of Americans killed three wars - World War I, World War II and Vietnam - combined.

It is also equal to the population of Kansas City, Missouri, and greater than that of Miami; Raleigh, North Carolina; or Omaha, Nebraska. 

The figure compiled by Johns Hopkins University surpasses the number of people who died in 2019 of chronic lower respiratory diseases, stroke, Alzheimer's, flu and pneumonia combined. 

Average daily deaths and cases have plummeted in the past few weeks. Virus deaths have fallen from more than 4,000 reported on some days in January to an average of fewer than 1,900 per day. 

But experts warn that the changing strains of the virus could cause the trend to reverse itself.

Some experts say not enough Americans have been inoculated yet for the vaccine to be making much of a difference.

Instead, the drop-off in deaths and cases has been attributed to the passing of the holidays; the cold and bleak days of midwinter, when many people are inclined to stay home; and better adherence to mask rules and social distancing.

The first known deaths from the virus in the U.S. happened in early February 2020. 

It took four months to reach the first 100,000 dead. The toll hit 200,000 deaths in September and 300,000 in December. Then it took just over a month to go from 300,000 to 400,000 and about two months to climb from 400,000 to the brink of 500,000.

The U.S. recorded an estimated 405,000 deaths in World War II, 58,000 in the Vietnam War and 36,000 in the Korean War. 

 As Americans mourn hundreds of thousands of lost loved ones, there are glimmers of hope on the horizon, but a long way to go before the pandemic is over, public health officials are quick to remind the public.  

Dr Anthony Fauci warned that 'we cannot declare victory because that curve is coming down so sharply' because more infectious variants threaten to set off another surge, he said during a Monday Good Morning America interview. 

Just 56,495 new cases of COVID-19 were reported in the US on Sunday, driving the seven-day rolling average below 70,000 new infections a day. By comparison, that figure stood at 180,930 one month earlier, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. 

Hospitalizations have plunged in step with cases over the past five weeks. As of Monday, 56,159 Americans were hospitalized for COVID-19, the fewest since November 8, according to COVID Tracking Project data. 

There were 1,829 deaths reported on Sunday - 46 percent below average number of fatalities at the February 8 peak. 

Dramatic declines daily infections and deaths are promising signs that the deadly post-holiday wave of coronavirus is finally subsiding, prompting optimism from Johns Hopkins University surgeon and public health professor Dr Marty Makary that the US 'will reach herd immunity by April,' as he entitled a Friday Wall Street Journal op-ed. 

But Dr Fauci is not convinced, warning that Americans could still need to wear masks into 2022 during a Sunday night CNN interview. 

'We've got to be really careful and not just say 'we're finished now, we're through it.' We have variants out there that could actually set us back,' he said on GMA. 

His comments come as at least three worrisome variants spread across the US. Most notably, there are now more than 1,600 cases of the UK's 70 percent more infectious B117 variant in 44 states, and both Dr Fauci and the CDC warn that the potentially deadlier form will be dominant in the US by next month. 

The variant triggered a massive surge of infections and deaths and the strictest lockdowns to-date in the UK, and Dr Fauci fears the same could happen in the US, which 'historically has done worse than any other country, and we're a highly-developed, rich country,' he charged. 

'It was just bad, it is bad now, these numbers are so stunning...[but] let's just go forward, and be completely committed as a unified country.' 

It comes after his colleague at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), director Dr Francis Collins faulted the politicization of mask-wearing for potentially leading to 'tens of thousands of deaths' in the US during a Sunday Axios interview. 

'The evidence was pretty compelling by last March or April that uniform wearing of masks would reduce transmission of this disease. And yet, with a variety of messages through a variety of sources, mask wearing became a statement about your political party or an invasion of your personal freedom,' Dr Collins said. 

'A mask is nothing more than a life-saving medical device, and yet it got categorized in all sorts of other ways that were not factual, not scientific, and frankly dangerous. And I think you could make a case that tens of thousands of people died as a result.'

Dr Fauci noted during a Sunday CNN interview that Americans could still need to wear masks in early 2022, though the country will likely reach 'some degree of normality' by the end of this year. 

The way forward, he says, is a combination of staying the course with measures like masking and social distancing, and vaccination. 

More than 63 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered, covering just over 13 percent of the US population with at least one dose. 

'Fortunately, the vaccines we are distributing now work well against the UK variant, which looks like it's becoming dominant in this country,' Dr Fauci said.  

The B117 variant does little to diminish protection offered by vaccines made by either Pfizer or Moderna, the firms' lab tests indicate. 

'We're in good shape now, but it's going to be a race' against the fast-spreading variant, Dr Fauci added.  

The arrival of vaccines and promising declines in new infections and deaths are not reason for complacency, or premature celebration, Dr Fauci continues to caution.   

He pointed out that he and other health officials were dubbed 'hyperbolic' when the warned in the spring that COVID-19 fatalities could reach 240,000. Now, the death toll has more than doubled that figure. 

US coronavirus deaths surpass the number of people who died in 2019 of chronic lower respiratory diseases, stroke, Alzheimer's, flu and pneumonia combined.

'It's nothing like we have ever been through in the last 102 years, since the 1918 influenza pandemic,' Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, said on CNN's State of the Union. Fauci also said the US will be 'approaching a degree of normality' by the end of the year. 

According to NBC News, some health experts believe that cases will get so low in the summer that many people could decide that 'there's no reason to get vaccinated anymore' before getting hit with another winter surge of the virus. 

At this crucial juncture in the US fight against coronavirus, experts are divided over whether American need to hear positive or cautionary messages.  

Former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb told CBS News on Sunday: 'This has taken a tragic toll on the United States, but we should be optimistic, in my view. I think we're going to continue to see infection rates decline into the spring and the summer. Right now, they're falling quite dramatically. I think these trends are likely to continue.'

Gottlieb then said that Pfizer and other companies manufacturing vaccines may be able to 'prepare much better for the fall,' especially as it relates to new variants. 

The US virus death toll reached 400,000 on January 19 in the waning hours in office for then-President Donald Trump, whose handling of the crisis was judged by public health experts to be a singular failure.

The first known deaths from the virus in the US happened in early February 2020, both of them in Santa Clara County, California. 

It took four months to reach the first 100,000 dead. The toll hit 200,000 deaths in September and 300,000 in December. Then it took just over a month to go from 300,000 to 400,000 and about two months to climb from 400,000 to the brink of 500,000. 

The global death toll was approaching 2.5 million, according to Johns Hopkins.

While the count is based on figures supplied by government agencies around the world, the real death toll is believed to be significantly higher, in part because of inadequate testing and cases inaccurately attributed to other causes early on.

Despite efforts to administer coronavirus vaccines, a widely cited model by the University of Washington projects the US death toll will surpass 589,000 by June 1.

'People will be talking about this decades and decades and decades from now,' Fauci said on NBC's Meet The Press.

More than 28 million COVID-19 cases have rocked the US, even as daily average deaths and hospitalizations have fallen to the lowest levels since before the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. The virus took a full year off the average life expectancy in the United States, the biggest decline since World War Two. 

While the decline 'is really terrific ... we are still at a level that's very high,' Fauci said on NBC's 'Meet the Press' program. 'We want to get that baseline really, really, really low before we start thinking that we're out of the woods.' 

Less than 15 per cent of the US population has received at least one vaccine dose, with nearly 43 million getting at least one shot and nearly 18 million getting a second shot, US statistics show.

More localities are easing some restrictions, such as on indoor dining, and moving to reopen schools even as millions await their shots, sparking debate over the safety of teachers, students and others.

Financial pressures also continue to weigh even as economists express optimism for the year ahead. 

Congress is weighing Biden's $1.9trillion coronavirus relief package, with the House of Representatives expected to vote on it this week and the Senate seeking to pass it before March 14. 

The White House said on Sunday it planned a memorial event in which Biden would deliver remarks.

A White House spokesman said the president along with first lady Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff would hold a moment of silence on Monday and there would be a candle-lighting ceremony at sundown.

Biden last month observed America's COVID-19 deaths on the eve of his inauguration with a sundown ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial's Reflecting Pool.

Biden will use 'his own voice and platform to take a moment to remember the people whose lives have been lost, the families who are still suffering ... at what is still a very difficult moment in this country,' White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters on Friday.

Last week, Biden said the COVID vaccine will be available to every American 'by the end of July' will millions of additional doses on the way and predicted herd immunity may be achieved as early as Christmas. 

Biden made the promise during a CNN town hall on the pandemic as his administration faces questions about its target numbers to get the vaccine into the arms of every American. 

The first question from moderator Anderson Cooper was 'when is every American who wants it going to be able to get a vaccine'.

'By the end of July of this year,' Biden responded. 'By the end of July, we'll have over 600 million doses - enough to vaccinate every single American.' 

He claimed not enough vaccines were available when he took office on January 20th.

'We came into office there was only 50 million doses that are available,' he said. His administration has repeatedly criticized the Trump administration for not having enough doses of the vaccine or a plan in place to distribute it. 

'I mean there was nothing in the refrigerator figuratively or literally speaking,' Biden said of vaccine availability when he took office. 

He also spoke of Trump derisively during the 75 minute event, calling him 'the former guy'.

Biden on Thursday singled out Trump, although he has previously praised Trump's Operation Warp Speed for its efforts on vaccine development. 

'My predecessor, to be very blunt about it, did not do his job,' Biden said. 'We won't have everything fixed for a while. But we're going to fix it.'  

This article has been adapted from its original source.

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