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Biden Marks Covid Milestone in Emotional White House Ceremony

Speaking somberly and drawing on his own personal experience, President Biden sought not only to honor the dead, but also to comfort those who have lost loved ones.

President Biden, left, with his wife, Jill Biden, and Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband, Douglas Emhoff, during a moment of silence outside the White House.
Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times
  • Published Feb. 22, 2021Updated Feb. 23, 2021, 12:58 a.m. ET

WASHINGTON — President Biden urged the nation on Monday night to “resist becoming numb to the sorrow” that the novel coronavirus had inflicted, marking the staggering milestone of more than a half-million Americans dead from the pandemic in a solemn ceremony at the White House.

The country passed the grim toll around 5 p.m., and bells began tolling at the National Cathedral, resounding across a capital with flags lowered to half-staff. About an hour later, Mr. Biden appeared in the Cross Hall of the White House and pulled a card from his jacket pocket that he said was updated each day with the number of those infected with the coronavirus and those who died of Covid-19.

Speaking somberly and drawing on his own personal experience, Mr. Biden sought not only to honor the dead, but also to comfort those who have lost loved ones, many of whom “took their final breath alone.”

Looking into the camera, the president addressed the survivors directly, alluding several times to the loss of his first wife, an infant daughter and, later, his eldest son.

“I know all too well,” he said. “I know what it’s like to not be there when it happens. I know what it’s like when you are there holding their hands; there’s a look in their eye and they slip away. That black hole in your chest — you feel like you’re being sucked into it. The survivors remorse, the anger, the questions of faith in your soul.”

It was a strikingly emotional moment, and a testament to a nation’s failure to act in the face of a calamity that would take the lives of more Americans in a year’s time, Mr. Biden noted, than died in World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War combined. “More lives lost to this virus,” he said, “than any other nation on Earth.”

Later, Mr. Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, along with Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband, Douglas Emhoff, exited the White House en route to the South Lawn through a door that was draped in black cloth; the stairs leading up to the Truman Balcony were seen dotted with votive candles.

The two couples, wearing black masks, bowed their heads in a moment of silence as a military band played “Amazing Grace.” When the music stopped, the president made the sign of the cross and turned to walk back inside.

The White House ceremony was particularly notable because President Donald J. Trump refused to mark the losses or hold such remembrances, knowing that any focus on the individual lives lost would quickly raise the question of how the government failed to respond more quickly and aggressively.

But in October, Mr. Trump did appear in much the same spot when he returned home from the hospital after being treated for Covid-19, removed his mask and walked inside — even as he was still most likely infectious.

Time after time, Mr. Trump played down the virus, first arguing that it would disappear, then that it would be contained to a few lives that would be lost, and then boasting that his government would hold the death count to “substantially below the 100,000” mark. At one point, he told the journalist Bob Woodward that he would not talk about the dangers “to reduce panic.”

As a presidential candidate, Mr. Biden consistently warned of the hard times that were ahead, even as he pledged that combating the virus would be his No. 1 priority if he were elected. Now, a month into his term in office, he owns the response. And he is already facing critics who question whether he set the bar for vaccinations too low, and if he is moving too slowly to clear roadblocks to getting millions of Americans vaccinated every day.

The average now is about 1.7 million vaccines administered daily, which the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, noted on Monday was roughly twice the daily vaccination pace as when Mr. Biden was inaugurated.

And by Monday, the number of Covid deaths being reported, on average, on most days was cut by roughly half since the peak of more than 3,300 in January. The slowing came as a relief, but scientists said variants of the virus made it difficult to project the future of the pandemic, and both Mr. Biden’s new team of medical advisers and historians cautioned against turning away from the scale of the country’s losses.

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“We continue to see trends head in the right direction, but cases, hospital admissions and deaths remain at very high levels,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters on Monday at the daily briefing on the virus that Mr. Biden has initiated. While average daily infections have dropped over 70 percent since January’s peak, she said, “cases remain significantly elevated.”

Andy Slavitt, a senior adviser to Mr. Biden, opened Monday’s Covid-19 briefing with a reminder that the country was about to reach “a grim milestone.”

“Everyone lost is someone whose life and gifts were cut short,” Mr. Slavitt said. “Our hearts go out to all of those who are grieving loved ones who are so deeply missed. For those of us in the administration, the occasion makes us more determined to turn the tide on Covid-19 so the losses can subside and the healing can begin.”

With him was Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease specialist, who predicted at the end of last March, at a time when there were slightly more than 2,000 Americans lost to Covid-19, that as many as 200,000 Americans might die of the disease — a number that seemed astronomical at the time. Today, it would look like a blessing.

“As sobering a number as that is, we should be prepared for it,” Dr. Fauci said at the time.

In an interview on Monday on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Dr. Fauci said that while some of the devastation was inevitable, much of it could have been avoided.

“It’s so tough to just go back and try and, you know, do a metaphorical autopsy on how things went. It was just bad. It is bad now,” Dr. Fauci said, adding, “If you look back historically, we’ve done worse than most any other country, and we’re a highly developed, rich country.”

The last public health disaster of comparable proportions was the 1918 influenza pandemic, which is estimated to have killed about 675,000 Americans. Nancy K. Bristow, the chairwoman of the history department at the University of Puget Sound and the author of “American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic,” drew a lesson from that.

“There will be a real drive to say, ‘Look how well we’re doing,’” she said, warning against inclinations now to “rewrite this story into another story of American triumph.”

“Many people are dead and a lot of people are suffering,” Dr. Bristow said. “It will be very important that we acknowledge the losses in public ways.”

And that was what the president was trying to do.