The United States has lost more than 500,000 lives to COVID-19, just over a year after the pandemic claimed its first known victim in Santa Clara County.
The painful milestone reached Monday underscores the coronavirus’s deadly persistence even as thousands are getting vaccinated and new infections worldwide have waned.
The scale of death in the U.S. as the pandemic moves into its second year is on par with losing the entire population of a major city — half of the residents of San Jose, or more than everyone in Oakland.
The death toll steadily rose throughout 2020 and spiked steeply after the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays and through January.
From the first confirmed fatality in Santa Clara County on Feb. 6, and the early days of the emergence of coronavirus infections, it took until the end of May before the country recorded its first 100,000 deaths. 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 death toll reached 400,000 on Jan. 19, meaning the last 100,000 deaths occurred in just over a month .
“These numbers are stunning,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert told ABC News’ “Good Morning America” program. “If you look back historically, we’ve done worse than almost any other country and we’re a highly developed, rich country.”
The U.S. accounts for 19% of the total global coronavirus deaths but just 4% of the world’s population.
o commemorate the loss of life due to COVID-19, President Biden ordered that flags at federal buildings fly at half-staff for five days to mark the 500,000 deaths White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters.
Biden also joined Vice President Kamala Harris for a candle lighting ceremony at the White House.
“Let this not be a story of how far we fell but how far we climbed back up,” Biden said in an emotional speech. “To heal, to grieve, we must remember. I know it’s hard.”
Biden referred to his own experience with grief and loss of family.
“For those who have lost loved ones, this is what I know: They are never truly gone,” he said, before leading a national moment of silence for those lost. “They will always be part of your heart. The day will come when the memory of the loved one you lost will bring a smile to your lips before a tear to your eye. That’s when you know you’re going to be OK.”
He used the occasion to urge Americans to find purpose and unity in honoring the dead and to protect each other by remaining vigilant, maintaining social distance, wearing masks and getting vaccinated when they can.
“This nation will smile,” Biden said. “This nation will know joy again.”
Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco held a moment of silence Monday on the House floor.
Andy Slavitt, the White House coronavirus senior adviser, said Monday that the milestone “makes us more determined to turned the tide of COVID-19.”
Confronting the grim milestone directly and publicly, Biden is trying to strike a balance between gravity and hope, while Donald Trump generally avoided constructs of collective grief for the deaths on his watch.
Trump invariably looked to play down the total, initially claiming the virus would go away on its own and later locking into a prediction that America would suffer far fewer than 100,000 deaths. Once the total eclipsed that mark, Trump shifted gears again and said that scale of loss was actually a success story because it could have been much worse.
In audiotapes released last fall, Trump told journalist Bob Woodward in March that “I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down because I don’t want to create a panic.”
Life expectancy in the United States dropped a staggering one year during the first half of 2020, the most dramatic drop since World War II, as pandemic deaths mounted, health officials said last week.
Minorities suffered the biggest impact, with Black Americans losing nearly three years, and Latinos, nearly two years, according to preliminary estimates from the CDC. Experts say it shows the profound impact of COVID-19, not just on deaths directly due to infection but also from heart disease, cancer and other conditions.
Outside of perfunctory tweets marking the milestones of 100,000 and 200,000 deaths, Trump oversaw no moment of national mourning, no memorial service.
California has lost close to 50,000 lives to the virus, and the Bay Area death toll recently surpassed 5,000.
The state’s seven-day test positivity rate was 3% as of Monday compared to 8.9% a month earlier, he said. Daily deaths totaled 233, well below the high of 764 a month earlier. Hospitalization and ICU counts were also significantly improved .
Gov. Gavin Newsom said Monday that California is building an infrastructure to deliver 4 million vaccine doses a week, even while supply constraints continue.
“There’s not enough vaccines to accommodate the need and demand,” Newsom said during a stop in Long Beach on a tour of vaccination efforts around the state. “Sites all across the state of California are toggling back based on limited supply. That’s a manufacturing issue.”
California anticipates receiving 1.4 million doses this week and 1.5 million next week, he said.
“It’s simply not what we’re capable of administering. We could do exponentially more, but nonetheless, we are seeing modest improvement week to week,” he said.
With the expected emergency use approval of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, he said vaccinations will ramp up “by the end of March, April.”
“May, June, July — game-changer,” Newsom said. “All of a sudden we’re at a completely different level.”
Biden seemed less optimistic than projections made by others, including those in his own administration, such as Fauci, who has suggested a summer comeback.
“I believe we’ll be approaching normalcy by the end of this year. And God willing, this Christmas will be different than the last,” Biden said Friday while touring a Pfizer vaccine manufacturing plant in Michigan.
“But I can’t make that commitment to you,“ he was quick to add. “There are other strains of the virus. We don’t know what could happen in terms of production rates. Things can change,” Biden continued. “But we’re doing everything the science has indicated we should do, and people are stepping up to get everything done that has to be done.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.