The US has passed the staggering milestone of 500,000 COVID-19 deaths in just more than a year since the coronavirus pandemic claimed its first known American victim in California.
US President Joe Biden took to social media on Tuesday morning (AEDT) to say it was “an unfathomable number”.
“Each one represents a family that will never again be whole. To those who have lost loved ones: I know no words can numb the pain, but I hope you find some solace in knowing the nation grieves with you,” he wrote.
Mr Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris commemorated the huge loss of life due to COVID-19 at an event at the White House that included a speech by the President, a minute’s silence and a candle- lighting ceremony.
US flags on federal property have been lowered to half-mast for five day, while the National Cathedral in Washington tolled its bells 500 times on Tuesday.
Mr Biden urged Americans to resist becoming “numb to the sorrow” and “viewing each life as a statistic”. He said those who died were “extraordinary”.
He also touched on his own personal tragedies after losing his first wife Neilia and baby daughter Naomi in a car crash in 1972, and later his adult son Beau to brain cancer in 2015 at age 46.
Mr Biden told Americans he knew it was hard but that “to heal, we must remember”.
According to Johns Hopkins University, the US has had more than 28 million cases and 500,054 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic in January 2020.
The death toll tops the number of Americans killed in World War II and the Korea and Vietnam wars combined.
The front page of The New York Times on Monday ran a column of dots to illustrate the number of lives lost in just 14 months from January 2020.
However, daily COVID-19 cases and hospitalisations across the US have fallen to their lowest level since before the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.
Top US infectious disease adviser Dr Anthony Fauci said the numbers were stunning.
“If you look back historically, we’ve done worse than almost any other country, and we’re a highly developed, rich country,” he said.
“If you look at what has gone on now, and we’re still not out of it, a half a million deaths. It’s terrible. It is historic. We haven’t seen anything even close to this for well over a hundred years since the 1918 pandemic of influenza,” he told NBC’s Meet the Press.
“It’s something that is stunning when you look at the numbers, almost unbelievable, but it’s true.
“This is a devastating pandemic, and it’s historic. People will be talking about this decades and decades and decades from now.”
Asked if Americans should expect to still be wearing masks into 2022, Dr Fauci said: “I think it is possible that that’s the case”.
He said it depended on the level of the virus in communities and potential COVID variants.
About 19 per cent of total global coronavirus deaths have been in the US, an outsized figure given that the nation accounts for just 4 per cent of the world’s population.
The country’s poor performance reflects the lack of a unified, national response in 2020. The administration of former president Donald Trump mostly left states to their own devices in tackling the greatest public health crisis in a century, with Mr Trump often in conflict with his own health experts.
In 2020, the virus has taken a full year off the average life expectancy in the US, the biggest decline since World War II.
After sweeping through the country at the beginning of 2020, the US epidemic had claimed its first 100,000 lives by May.
The toll doubled by September as the virus ebbed and surged during the northern hemisphere summer.
Pandemic-weary Americans grappled with the mountain of loss brought by COVID-19 as health experts warned of yet another coronavirus resurgence in autumn and winter.
By December, the death toll had reached 300,000 as the US entered a deadly post-holiday season that would claim 230,000 lives in less than three months.
Deaths between December and February accounted for 46 per cent of all US COVID-19 fatalities, even as vaccines finally became available and a monumental effort to inoculate Americans got underway.
The virus appears to have loosened its grip recently, with COVID-19 cases in US falling for the sixth consecutive week. However, health experts warn that coronavirus variants discovered in Britain, South Africa and Brazil could unleash another wave that threatens to reverse recent positive trends.