President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on Monday memorialized the half-million Americans killed by COVID-19, a staggering toll that eclipses U.S. combat deaths from major wars of the 20th century.
The candlelit ceremony at the White House evoked an inauguration-eve event to recognize the 400,000 who had died by Jan. 20, underscoring the fast-moving severity of a winter holiday surge that is now beginning to ease.
In his remarks, the president rejected the idea that “ordinary Americans” had died.
“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 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 the once-unfathomable loss does, however, come at a time of growing optimism about the course of the pandemic, with more than 1 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 fewer than 2,000 from over 3,000 a week ago.
Hospital stays are down to levels before the winter spike, though the numbers remain higher than 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 a critical care doctor who treats COVID-19 patients.
Scientists say the positive trend is likely a result of better adherence with masking and physical distancing, plus the early effects of vaccination and natural immunity from prior infection, though the country remains far from the “herd immunity” needed to control the spread of the virus.
Despite the improved outlook, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, 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.”
The scene was a contrast with a visit to the site by President Trump, who defiantly took off his mask 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 COVID-19 was recorded on Feb. 28 in the Seattle area, but coroners in Santa Clara County, California, later determined that a pair of deaths earlier that month could be blamed on the disease.
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. About 95% of those who died were 50 and older, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analysis of partial data.
High-population California recently eclipsed New York as the state with the most COVID-19 deaths overall, over 49,000, compared with 46,000-plus. New Jersey has reported 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. Democratic leaders pointed to the 500,000 mark as a sign that the job isn’t finished. Republicans urged the White House to make it more targeted.
“Members of Congress join Americans in prayer for the lives lost or devastated by this vicious virus,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat. “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, Kentucky Republican, said Democrats are pushing a relief package that ignores 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, New York Democrat, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, in announcing a moment of silence for COVID-19 victims at 6:15 p.m. Tuesday.
The U.S. death toll is by far the highest of any country, though it is unclear how detailed or transparent other high-population nations have been about documenting their deaths.
The American case fatality rate — the share of people who test positive for coronavirus infection and then die from COVID-19 — is 1.8%. That puts the nation in good stead compared with many large European countries, although the U.S. has lost more people per share of population than France and Germany.
The United Kingdom, 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 COVID-19 cases crested in the South and West in the summer before emergency measures brought it under control, only for the Midwest to report flare-ups on the cusp of winter.
By mid-November, it was a full-blown crisis across the country, particularly in colder places such as Wisconsin and the Dakotas.
Nursing homes battered by the crisis were prioritized for vaccination after shots were approved in mid-December. Deaths declined 67% from 6,000 in the week ending Dec. 20 to about 2,000 in the week ending Feb. 7, 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 people so, beyond avoiding disease, they are less likely to transmit the virus to others.
A study from Scotland found that an initial dose of the Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccine 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 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,” said acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock. “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.”
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