By Steve Herman
WHITE HOUSE – As the nation marked 500,000 deaths because of COVID-19, U.S. President Joe Biden at twilight Monday walked to a White House South Portico decorated with black bunting and 500 candles.
Alongside the president were first lady Jill Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, who is known as the second gentleman. They stood silently as the Marine Corps band played the Christian hymn, “Amazing Grace.”
As the music concluded, Biden, a Catholic, made the sign of the cross.
A few minutes earlier at the Cross Hall on the first floor of the White House, Biden asked the nation to join in the moment of silence and, in a subdued tone, directed remarks to those who had lost loved ones to the virus.
“It seems unbelievable, but I promise you the day will come when the memory of the one you have lost brings a smile to your lips before a tear to your eye,” the president said. “We will get through this, I promise you.”
He also spoke of the cruelty of death amid the pandemic.
“So many of the rituals that help us cope, that help us honor those we loved, haven’t been available to us,” the president noted. “As a nation, we cannot and we must not let this go on.”
The president on Monday ordered U.S. flags on federal property lowered to half-staff for five days.
The National Cathedral in Washington, meanwhile, tolled its bells 500 times to honor the lives lost to the coronavirus.
It was a year ago Tuesday that President Donald Trump declared to reporters on the White House South Lawn as he departed for India that “we have it very much under control,” adding “very interestingly, we’ve had no deaths.”
The first fatality from the virus in the United States had actually occurred more than two weeks before the president’s remarks, but it was not until April 2020 that authorities confirmed 57-year-old Patricia Dowd of San Jose, California, had died of COVID-19.
Amid the gloom of a half-million deaths and the emergence of variants of the virus, there are expressions of optimism from top U.S. government officials.
The seven-day average of deaths in the country is continuing to decline, according to Dr. Rochelle Wolensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A nationwide COVID-19 vaccination campaign is under way and about 13% of the population has received at least one dose, although winter weather in recent days has slowed the pace of immunization in some states.
Officials continue to plead for people to wear masks in public and maintain social distancing as the United States is “still seeing a lot of disease – 66,000 cases per day,” Wolensky said during a video briefing with reporters Monday.
The president’s chief medical adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, also cautioned “we are still at an unacceptably high baseline level,” preventing the resumption of normal society.
The United States has suffered the most deaths from the coronavirus and accounts for nearly 20% of total global deaths from the virus, although it is home to just 4% of the world’s population.
That is partly blamed on a lack of coherent federal response to the pandemic during the Trump administration. Trump, who left office January 20, had clashed with his own health experts and he primarily left it to the individual 50 states to figure out how to combat the virus.
Biden’s team “inherited a mess,” Florida’s emergency management director, Jared Moskowitz, told a state legislative committee last month.
In 2020, the virus shaved a full year off the average life expectancy in the United States, the biggest decline since World War II.
The loss of so many lives is “a horrific human toll of staggering proportions and incomprehensible sadness,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Monday in a statement, in which she called for swift action by Congress to approve the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan “to put an end to this pandemic and to stem the suffering felt by so many millions.”
The $1.9 trillion plan by the president is intended to increase the country’s recovery from the economic and health effects of the pandemic.
Some lawmakers have expressed concern about the proposed legislation’s total cost and what it covers.
“I’m prepared to hear ideas about how to make the American Rescue Plan better and cheaper,” Biden said in remarks delivered earlier Monday. “But we have to make clear who we’re helping and who it would hurt.”
Katherine Gypson contributed to this report.