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Feb 22, 2021
Originally published on February 22, 2021 7:24 pm

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The United States hit a devastating milestone today - 500,000 people now dead from COVID-19. That's according to the tally kept by researchers at Johns Hopkins University. Well, while infections have been falling and vaccinations have been ramping up, about 2,000 people are still dying from the virus in this country each day. President Biden led the nation in remembering and mourning those deaths this evening at the White House.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I know it's hard. I promise you I know it's hard. I remember. But that's how you heal. You have to remember. And it's also important to do that as a nation.

KELLY: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith is here now. And, Tam, what else did we hear from the president tonight as he marked this moment?

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Well, it was certainly very somber and heavy. Five hundred thousand is a huge number, and each one of those numbers is a person. It's a loss. And Biden said that Americans need to resist viewing these deaths just as a statistic but instead to focus on the individuals who died.

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BIDEN: And I know that when you stare at that empty chair around the kitchen table, it brings it all back, no matter how long ago it happened, as if it just happened that moment when you look at that empty chair - the birthdays, the anniversaries, the holidays without them and the everyday things, the small things, the tiny things that you miss the most.

KEITH: At one point in his remarks, Biden was almost whispering, saying, you're going to be OK; you're going to be OK, which was a message not just to those who have had a loss but, I think, more broadly to the nation as a whole. After these remarks, he went outside, and the Marine Band played "Amazing Grace" as he and the first lady and the vice president and the second gentleman held a moment of silence. There were 500 candles on the South Portico of the White House, and the White House says that those represent those 500,000 lives that have been lost.

KELLY: It's such a marked contrast to his predecessor. Talk, Tam, about how Biden has approached this part of his job, leading the nation through what was previously unimaginable; leading the nation through such grief.

KEITH: Biden is someone who, as part of his political story, has very personally and publicly grieved and experienced loss. And he is bringing that to this job. And in a way, a president is always supposed to be the consoler-in-chief, but Biden does this more personally and more intensely. And, you know, before he took office even, the night before his inauguration, he held another ceremony - that was just a month ago - to mark 400,000 deaths. And now it's 100,000 more. And obviously, this is a big contrast with President Trump, who - although he would say, we mourn the lives lost, it was sort of a throwaway line. He didn't want to linger on it. Biden is lingering on the loss.

KELLY: He is also ordering flags lowered to half-staff at federal properties for five days. What's the significance of this?

KEITH: Well, one day for each 100,000 deaths. And if states and private businesses follow up on this - and cities - then that will be a lot of flags at half-staff to remind the public of the seriousness of the threat of this virus. And President Biden is certainly encouraging people to do all the things - to wear masks, to socially distance and to get vaccines when possible.

KELLY: Thank you, Tam.

KEITH: You're welcome.

KELLY: NPR's Tamara Keith reporting on a solemn ceremony tonight at the White House to mark a horrific milestone. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.