As of yesterday, the US reached a horrifying 500,000 deaths from the coronavirus pandemic, according to the count kept by Johns Hopkins University. That's just a month after we surpassed 400,000 deaths and a bit more than a year since the nation's first recorded death from COVID-19 on Feb. 6, 2020. Shortly after he was sworn in, President Joe Biden said it was likely that the death toll would reach half a million by the end of February. In a contrast from the previous resident of the White House, Biden didn't tweet out a self-congratulatory message yesterday to point out how right he was. Instead, he gave a solemn speech to mark the milestone, followed by a moment of silence in front of the White House. Biden also ordered that flags be flown at half-staff for five days.

Biden's speech yesterday followed the nation's first national ceremony of remembrance for victims of the pandemic, also led by Biden, at the Lincoln Memorial the night before he was sworn in — coincidentally the one-year anniversary of the first US diagnosis of the disease.

In his speech, Biden began by noting the vastness of the tragedy, which has now killed more Americans than both World Wars and the Vietnam War combined. Then he reminded us that every single one of those deaths was far more than a statistic, leaving behind a hole in a family, a community.

Here's video of the speech from CBS News; the moment of silence follows the speech by a few minutes — and on that network, at least, was completely covered up by the voice of Norah O'Donnell saying she'd stop talking once it began, by which time it was over.

Biden noted that every day, he carries in his pocket a daily schedule that includes a tally of how many Americans have died from the virus, a detail we honestly can't imagine the previous holder of the office allowing because he'd have seen it as a rebuke, rather than as a reminder of what the job is about.

The line that got to me was Biden's observation that those half-million souls were all, in their own ways, not just ordinary Americans, but "extraordinary":

They spanned generations. Born in America. Immigrated to America. But just like that, so many of them took final breath alone in America. As a nation, we can't accept such a cruel fate.

Biden cautioned that, in the face of numbers that make it tempting to look only at statistics, we "have to resist becoming numb to the sorrow," and that one more tragedy of the pandemic is that "so many of the rituals that help us cope, that help us honor those we loved, haven't been available to us."

Biden also noted, as he frequently does, that he knows more about loss than he would like:

I know what it's like to not be there when it happens. I know what it's like when you are there, holding your hands, looking in their eyes as they slip away.

And he reached out to all those grieving, whether they lost someone last year or an hour ago, with the reassurance that remembering hurts, and is part of healing.

And moving forward, he called on Americans to remember, and to dedicate themselves to taking action and fighting the pandemic by continuing to follow public health recommendations and by ending "the politics and misinformation that has divided families, communities, and the country, and has cost too many lives already."

"Let this not be a story of how far we fell," he said, "but of how far we climbed back up."

And for once in this dark winter, things are starting to look somewhat better. Following January's record numbers of COVID-19 deaths, the result of people gathering for the holidays despite warnings not to, hospitalizations and deaths are declining. But they're still bad. On January 12, the worst single day of deaths in the US, 4,400 people died from the virus; we're now losing just under 2,000 people daily, and new infections are down sharply. Vaccinations are also increasing, and the Biden administration has committed to purchasing enough vaccine to get all American adults vaccinated by late July. And Johnson & Johnson's single-shot vaccine could get emergency FDA approval as early as this week.

But as NPR reports, we're not out of the woods yet, and it's still possible we could be bitten on the ass by a bear:

"That decline is really fragile and could change at any time," says Ali Mokdad, professor of health metrics sciences at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

He describes the present situation as a race between the vaccine and new, more transmissible variants, saying that even with the vaccine rollout, Americans will need to stick to safe behavior to keep the virus from surging badly again.

IHME is now forecasting the U.S. may surpass 600,000 deaths by June.

And that's why we need to keep social distancing and wearing masks, to keep that number as low as possible. We might be moving back toward normal, but we're not there yet. And it didn't have to be this bad.

[NBC News / NPR / Politico / NYT]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.


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