‘A truly heartbreaking milestone’: President Biden honors 500,000 US COVID-19 deaths with moment of silence

WASHINGTON — Five hundred candles glowed around President Joe Biden as he stood outside the White House in a moment of silence to honor the lives of the more than 500,000 Americans who have died from COVID-19. 

“Today we mark a truly heartbreaking milestone: 500,071 dead,” Biden said during remarks in the Cross Hall of the White House before the moment of silence. “That’s more Americans who have died in one year in this pandemic than in World War I, World War II, and the Vietnam War combined. That’s more lives lost to this virus than any other nation on Earth.”

The United States passed the grim milestone Monday, according to the Johns Hopkins University dashboard. The toll comes less than a year after the coronavirus outbreak was declared a pandemic. 

First lady Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff were also present during the remarks and moment of silence. In addition to the moment of silence, the flag at the White House was lowered to half-staff and will remain until sunset on Friday.

President Joe Biden, first lady Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and Doug Emhoff participate in a moment of silence during a ceremony to honor the 500,000 Americans that died from COVID-19, at the White House, Monday, Feb. 22, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

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Biden has often talked about empathizing with Americans who have lost loved ones, both on the campaign trail and since taking office. Biden’s son, Beau, died of brain cancer in 2015 and his wife and daughter died in a car crash in 1972.

During his remarks Monday, Biden said he knows what it’s like to not be there when a loved one passes away, and to be there “holding their hands, as they look in your eye and they slip away.”

The president noted that he received a letter from a woman whose father died from COVID-19 last Easter, and how she and her family have not been able to properly mourn his death due to the pandemic.

“So many of the rituals that help us cope and help us honor those we loved haven’t been available to us,” Biden said. “As a nation, we cannot, and we must not, let this go on.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday that Biden’s remarks and the moment of silence is “a moment to remember all of the families that had been impacted across the country.”

‘This is our generation’s D-Day’: As US surpasses 500,000 COVID-19 deaths, weary health care workers fight on amid the heartbreak

“The president felt it was important, on a personal level and human level, to mark the lives lost over the past year,” Psaki said.

Biden during his remarks also reminded Americans to “stay vigilant,” and continue to wear masks, socially distance and get a vaccine as soon as they can.

“This nation will smile again. This nation will know sunny days again. This nation will know joy again,” Biden said. “And as we do, we’ll remember each person we’ve lost, the lives they lived, the loved ones they left behind. We will get through this I promise you.”

Following his remarks, Biden stepped onto the South Portico porch, with the first lady by his side and Harris and Emhoff across from him, and solemnly stood during the moment of silence. He briefly bowed his head before lifting it up, made the sign of the cross, and silently walked back inside the White House.

Reach Rebecca Morin at Twitter @RebeccaMorin_

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