WASHINGTON: The United States on Monday (Feb 22) crossed the staggering milestone of 500,000 COVID-19 deaths just over a year after the coronavirus pandemic claimed its first known victim in the country.
The US had recorded more than 28 million COVID-19 cases and 500,054 lives lost as of Monday afternoon, according to a Reuters tally of public health data, although daily cases and hospitalisations have fallen to the lowest level since before the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.
About 19 per cent of total global COVID-19 deaths have occurred in the US, an outsized figure given that the nation accounts for just 4 per cent of the world's population.
The US also has one of the highest rates of deaths per 100,000 residents, exceeded by only a few countries such as Belgium, the United Kingdom and Italy.
With total deaths above 500,000, one in every 673 US residents has succumbed to the pandemic.
"These numbers are stunning," Dr Anthony Fauci, a top infectious-disease adviser to President Joe Biden told ABC News' Good Morning America programme. "If you look back historically, we've done worse than almost any other country, and we're a highly developed, rich country."
In an interview with Reuters, Fauci on Monday said the pandemic arrived in the United States as the country was riven by political divisions in which wearing a mask became a political statement rather than a public health measure.
"Even under the best of circumstances, this would have been a very serious problem," Fauci said, noting that despite strong adherence to public health measures, countries such as Germany and the UK struggled with the virus.
"However, that does not explain how a rich and sophisticated country can have the most percentage of deaths and be the hardest-hit country in the world," said Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a top adviser to President Joe Biden. "That I believe should not have happened."
While the United States has just about 4% of the global population, it has recorded nearly 20% of all COVID-19 deaths.
The country's poor performance reflects the lack of a unified, national response last year, when 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 Trump often in conflict with his own health experts.
"REMEMBER EACH PERSON AND THE LIFE THEY LIVED"
In a proclamation honouring the dead, President Joe Biden ordered the US flag to be flown at half-staff on public buildings and grounds until sunset on Friday.
"On this solemn occasion, we reflect on their loss and on their loved ones left behind," Biden said in the proclamation. "We, as a Nation, must remember them so we can begin to heal, to unite, and find purpose as one Nation to defeat this pandemic."
Bells tolled at the National Cathedral in Washington to honor the lives lost - ringing 500 times to symbolize the 500,000 deaths.
“As we acknowledge the scale of this mass death in America, remember each person and the life they lived," Biden said in a somber speech at the White House after the bells sounded.
"The son who called his mom every night just to check in. The father, the daughter who lit up his world. The best friend who was always there. … The nurse who made her patients want to live."
A few moments later, Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and their spouses appeared wearing black clothing and black masks. They stood silently as the hymn "Amazing Grace" was played.
AVERAGE LIFE EXPECTANCY DROPS
In 2020, the virus has taken a full year off the average life expectancy in the US, the biggest decline since World War II.
Sweeping through the country at the beginning of last year, the US epidemic had claimed its first 100,000 lives by May.
The death toll doubled by September as the virus ebbed and surged during the summer months.
Pandemic-weary Americans, like so many around the world, grappled with the mountain of loss brought by COVID-19 as health experts warned of yet another coronavirus resurgence during the upcoming fall and winter months.
Americans lost mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, brothers, sisters and friends to the virus. For many, the grief was amplified by the inability to see loved ones in hospitals or nursing homes and by the physical distancing imposed by authorities to curb the spread of the virus.
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 the span of less than three months.
With numbers that made the appalling toll early in the pandemic pale by comparison, deaths recorded 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 the American public got underway.
Despite the grim milestone, the virus appears to have loosened its grip as COVID-19 cases in United States fell for the sixth consecutive week.
However, health experts have warned that coronavirus variants initially discovered in Britain, South Africa and Brazil could unleash another wave that threatens to reverse the recent positive trends.
Fauci cautioned against complacency and urged Americans to continue public health measures such as wearing masks, physical distancing and avoiding crowds while officials race to inoculate the population, particularly with these more contagious new variants circulating.
"We've got be really careful and not just say, 'OK we're finished now, we're through it,'" he told ABC.