From left, President Joe Biden, First Lady Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff, bow their heads during a ceremony to honor the 500,000 Americans that died from COVID-19, at the White House, Monday, Feb. 22, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Biden leads nation in mourning 500,000 US Covid-19 deaths
05:45 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

President Joe Biden honored the 500,000 American lives lost to coronavirus on Monday, speaking of the collective grief of a nation and in personal terms.

“The people we lost were extraordinary. They spanned generations,” he said. “Just like that, they took their final breath alone, in America.”

Biden spoke from experience when it came to describing the grief of losing a loved one.

“For the loved ones left behind: I know all too well. I know what it’s like to not be there when it happens. I know what it’s like when you are there holding their hands, there’s a look in their eye and they slip away,” Biden said.

“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,” he added.

The President also expressed optimism, telling Americans: “We will get through this, I promise you.”

“We ask you to join us to remember. So we can heal. To find purpose, and the work ahead to show that there is light in the darkness,” Biden said. “This nation will smile again. This nation will know sunny days again. This nation will know joy again.”

He also warned of the costs of complacency in the face of such staggering loss.

“While we’ve been fighting this pandemic for so long, we have to resist becoming numb to the sorrow,” Biden said. “We have to resist viewing each life as a statistic, or a blur, or on the news.”

Biden then participated in a moment of silence, standing by 500 lighted candles outside the White House, joined by first lady Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff.

In remembrance of the deaths, Biden also issued a presidential proclamation Monday afternoon that ordered the flag of the United States to be flown at half-staff for five days at all federal buildings and military posts in the US and abroad.

Biden, Harris and their spouses also participated in a somber ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial ahead of Inauguration Day about a month ago to mark 400,000 American lives lost to Covid-19.

Last week, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration was working on plans so the President could use his “own voice and platform to take a moment to remember the people whose lives have been lost, the families who are still suffering.”

The Biden administration’s approach to the coronavirus marks a stark contrast to how President Donald Trump responded publicly to the pandemic. Trump frequently defended his administration’s response to the pandemic but rarely expressed grief for the victims – once telling “Axios on HBO” in September that the US Covid-19 death toll “is what it is.”

While coronavirus cases are trending down and vaccinations are ticking up, the US is struggling to get a handle on the threat posed by new variants.

Experts – both inside and outside the White House – are still far from certain that America is finally clawing its way out of the pandemic, with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease specialist, telling CNN Sunday that it’s “possible” Americans will still need to wear masks in 2022 to protect against the coronavirus, even as the US may reach “a significant degree of normality” by the end of this year.

This story has been updated with additional details.

CNN’s Arlette Saenz, Paul LeBlanc and Jason Hoffman contributed to this report.