The Journal Gazette
 
 
Tuesday, February 23, 2021 1:00 am

Biden marks half-million COVID deaths

Tries to balance mourning, hope in his remarks

Associated Press

WASHINGTON – With sunset remarks and a national moment of silence, President Joe Biden on Monday confronted head-on the country's once-unimaginable loss – half a million Americans in the COVID-19 pandemic – as he tried to strike a balance between mourning and hope.

Addressing the “grim, heartbreaking milestone” directly and publicly, Biden stepped to a lectern in the White House Cross Hall, unhooked his face mask and delivered an emotion-filled eulogy for more than 500,000 Americans he said he felt he knew.

“We often hear people described as ordinary Americans. There's no such thing,” he said Monday evening. “There's nothing ordinary about them. The people we lost were extraordinary.”

“Just like that,” he added, “so many of them took their last breath alone.”

A president whose own life has been marked by family tragedy, Biden spoke in deeply personal terms, referencing his own losses as he tried to comfort the huge number of Americans whose lives have been forever changed by the pandemic.

“I know all too well. I know what it's like to not be there when it happens,” said Biden, who has long addressed grief more powerfully than perhaps any other American public figure. “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 president, who lost his first wife and baby daughter in a car collision and later an adult son to brain cancer, leavened the grief with a message of hope.

“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, the loved ones they left behind.”

He said, “We have to resist becoming numb to the sorrow. We have to resist viewing each life as a statistic or a blur or, on the news. We must do so to honor the dead. But, equally important, to care for the living.”

The president ordered flags on federal property lowered to half staff for five days and then led the moment of communal mourning for those lost to a virus that often prevents people from gathering to remember their loved ones. Monday's bleak threshold of 500,000 deaths was playing out against contradictory crosscurrents: an encouraging drop in coronavirus cases and worries about the spread of more contagious variants.

Biden's management of the pandemic will surely define at least the first year of his presidency, and his response has showcased the inherent tension between preparing the nation for dark weeks ahead while also offering optimism about pushing out vaccines that could, eventually, bring this American tragedy to a close.

After he spoke, the president, along with first lady Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, stood outside the White House for a moment of silence at sundown. Black bunting draped the doorway they walked through. Five hundred brilliantly lit candles – each standing for 1,000 people lost – illuminated the stairways on either side of them as the Marine Band played a mournful rendition of “Amazing Grace.”

The milestone comes just over a year after the first confirmed U.S. fatality from the coronavirus. The pandemic has since swept across the world and the U.S., stressing the nation's health care system, rattling its economy and rewriting the rules of everyday society.

The COVID-19 death total in the United States had just crossed 400,000 when Biden took the oath of office.

An additional 100,000 have died in the past month.

Biden has deliberately set expectations low – particularly on vaccinations and when the nation can return to normal – knowing he could land a political win by exceeding them. He is on track to far exceed his initial promise to deliver 100 million vaccinations in his first 100 days, with some public health experts now urging him to set a far more ambitious goal.

The administration says it expects to have enough vaccine available for every American by the end of July.

Biden's reference to next Christmas for a possible return to normalcy raised eyebrows across a pandemic-weary nation and seemed less optimistic than projections made by others in his own administration, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has suggested a summer comeback.

The pandemic surpassed a milestone Monday that once seemed unimaginable, a stark confirmation of the virus's reach into all corners of the country and communities of every size and makeup.

Experts warn that about 90,000 more deaths are likely in the next few months, despite a massive campaign to vaccinate people.

In recent 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.

Still, at half a million, the toll recorded by Johns Hopkins University is already greater than the population of Miami or Kansas City, Missouri.

It is roughly equal to the number of Americans killed in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War combined. It is akin to a 9/11 every day for nearly six months.

Also

Study: Teachers driving transmissions

ATLANTA – A new study finds that teachers may be more important drivers of COVID-19 transmission in schools than students.

The paper released Monday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studies nine COVID-19 transmission clusters in elementary schools in the Atlanta suburb of Marietta in December and January that included one cluster where 16 teachers, students and relatives of students at home were infected.

In only one of the nine clusters was a student clearly the first documented case, while a teacher was the first documented case in four clusters. In another four, the first case was unclear. Of the nine clusters, eight involved probable teacher-to-student transmission. Two clusters saw teachers infect each other during in-person meetings or lunches, with a teacher then infecting other students.

National Spelling Bee mostly virtual

The Scripps National Spelling Bee will return this year in a mostly virtual format, with the in-person competition limited to a dozen finalists who will gather on an ESPN campus at Walt Disney World in Florida, Scripps announced Monday.

Last year's bee was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, the first time since World War II it had been called off. Organizers said they did not believe a large gathering at the bee's longtime venue – a convention center outside Washington – would be possible this year for the competition's usual date around Memorial Day.

Instead of compressing the entire competition into a week, the bee will be stretched over several weeks. The preliminary rounds will be held in mid-June, the semifinals on June 27 and the ESPN-televised finals on July 8.


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