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Biden commemorates 500,000 U.S. lives lost to COVID-19

U.S. coronavirus death toll surpasses 500,000
U.S. coronavirus death toll surpasses 500,000 04:14

Hours after the U.S. crossed the threshold of 500,000 deaths from COVID-19, President Biden commemorated the lives lost over the past year on Monday night. No other country has lost more lives to the yearlong pandemic than the U.S.

"Today, we mark a truly grim, heartbreaking milestone," he said in a brief speech at the White House. "500,071 dead. That's more Americans who died in one year in this pandemic than in World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War combined."

Remembrance, Mr. Biden said, is an important part of the healing process, both for individuals and for the nation. Shortly before the event, the president ordered the flags at the White House lowered to half staff. Candles graced the steps from the White House residence to the South Lawn, as the president, first lady Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff looked out over the South Lawn in a moment of silence. 

Special Report: Biden commemorates 500,000 U.S. lives lost to COVID-19 17:59

"That's how you heal — you have to remember," Mr. Biden said. "And it's also important to do that as a nation. Those who have lost loved ones, here's what I know: They're never truly gone. They'll always be part of your heart."

The president, who lost his first wife and daughter in a car crash decades ago, and whose son Beau died after a battle with cancer in 2015, empathized with those who have lost loved ones over the last year.

"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, looking in to their eyes as they slip away," Mr. Biden said. "...That movie theater where you met. The morning coffee you shared together."

President Joe Biden, first lady Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff, bow their heads during a White House ceremony to honor the 500,000 Americans who have died from COVID-19 on Monday, February 22, 2021. Evan Vucci / AP

The president called on the country to press forward in taking precautions to prevent more deaths. It's not about politics, he said — it's about neighbors, friends, daughters and sons, husbands and wives. 

"We have to fight this as one people. As the United States of America ... the only way to spare more pain and more loss, the only way," he said. 

Overall, the number of cases and of deaths per day have been dropping, and over 44 million Americans have received at least one vaccine dose in a two-dose regimen. 

Despite the staggering toll taken by the virus, former Food and Drug Administration chief Dr. Scott Gottlieb sees reasons for optimism in the months ahead. On CBS News' "Face the Nation" on Sunday, he predicted, "I think we're going to continue to see infection rates decline into the spring and the summer. Right now, they're falling quite dramatically." While he doesn't think the U.S. will ever obtain "true" herd immunity, because large percentages of Americans have been infected and a growing number of people are being vaccinated, the disease is transferring "at a much slower rate."

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