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US on brink of passing once-unthinkable 500,000 coronavirus deaths

100,000 deaths were in roughly the last month; Biden to deliver remarks at sunset to honor those who died in pandemic, along with moment of silence and lighting ceremony

A man places flags at the National World War I Museum and Memorial Jan. 19, 2021, in Kansas City, Missouri. The 1,665 flags represent the area residents who died in the coronavirus pandemic and the display was part of a national memorial to lives lost to COVID-19. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
A man places flags at the National World War I Museum and Memorial Jan. 19, 2021, in Kansas City, Missouri. The 1,665 flags represent the area residents who died in the coronavirus pandemic and the display was part of a national memorial to lives lost to COVID-19. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

AP — The US stood Monday at the brink of a once-unthinkable tally: 500,000 people lost to the coronavirus.

A year into the pandemic, the running total of lives lost was about 498,000 — roughly the population of Kansas City, Missouri, and just shy of the size of Atlanta. The figure compiled by Johns Hopkins University surpasses the number of people who died in 2019 of chronic lower respiratory diseases, stroke, Alzheimer’s, flu and pneumonia combined.

US President Joe Biden will mark the milestone with a ceremony at the White House on Monday evening, when the US is expected to have passed the milestone.

The White House said Biden will deliver remarks at sunset to honor those who lost their lives. He will be joined by first lady Jill Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, and they will participate in the moment of silence and lighting ceremony.

Then US president-elect Joe Biden speaks during a COVID-19 memorial Jan. 19, 2021, in Washington (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Biden has made a point of recognizing the lives lost from the virus. His first event upon arriving in Washington for his inauguration a month ago was to deliver remarks at a COVID-19 memorial ceremony.

The US virus death toll reached 400,000 on January 19 in the waning hours in office for then-president Donald Trump, whose handling of the crisis was judged by public health experts to be a singular failure.

“It’s nothing like we have ever been through in the last 102 years, since the 1918 influenza pandemic,” the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

The first known deaths from the virus in the US happened in early February 2020, both of them in Santa Clara County, California. It took four months to reach the first 100,000 dead. The toll hit 200,000 deaths in September and 300,000 in December. Then it took just over a month to go from 300,000 to 400,000 and another month to climb from 400,000 to the brink of 500,000.

Faces of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority employees who died of COVID-19 are displayed at Moynihan Train Hall, Jan. 28, 2021, in the Manhattan borough of New York (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Joyce Willis of Las Vegas is among the countless Americans who lost family members during the pandemic. Her husband, Anthony Willis, died December 28, followed by her mother-in-law in early January.

There were anxious calls from the ICU when her husband was hospitalized. She was unable to see him before he died because she, too, had the virus and could not visit.

“They are gone. Your loved one is gone, but you are still alive,” Willis said. “It’s like you still have to get up every morning. You have to take care of your kids and make a living. There is no way around it. You just have to move on.”

Then came a nightmare scenario of caring for her father-in-law while dealing with grief, arranging funerals, paying bills, helping her children navigate online school and figuring out how to go back to work as an occupational therapist.

A person walks by shafts of light at the Clark County Government Center illuminated as part of a national memorial to lives lost to COVID-19, Jan. 19, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Her father-in-law, a Vietnam vet, also contracted the virus. He also suffered from respiratory issues and died on February 8. The family isn’t sure if COVID-19 contributed to his death.

“Some days I feel OK and other days I feel like I’m strong and I can do this,” she said. “And then other days it just hits me. My whole world is turned upside-down.”

The global death toll was approaching 2.5 million, according to Johns Hopkins.

A memorial of 2,000 candles in Jerusalem’s Paris Square for the Israeli lives lost to the coronavirus pandemic, on October 12, 2020 (Darkeinu)

While the count is based on figures supplied by government agencies around the world, the real death toll is believed to be significantly higher, in part because of inadequate testing and cases inaccurately attributed to other causes early on.

Despite efforts to administer coronavirus vaccines, a widely cited model by the University of Washington projects the US death toll will surpass 589,000 by June 1.

“People will be talking about this decades and decades and decades from now,” Fauci said on NBC’s “Meet The Press.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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