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As U.S. Death Toll Surpasses Half A Million, Biden Plans To Order Flags To Half-Staff

Updated at 4:45 p.m. ET

As the U.S. passes the grievous marker of 500,000 lives lost to COVID-19, President Joe Biden will order flags on federal property to be lowered at half staff for five days to mark the solemn milestone, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a Monday briefing.

Biden will commemorate the people who died at a Monday evening ceremony, joined by First Lady Jill Biden, Vice President Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff. The event will include remarks, a candle lighting ceremony and a moment of silence, according to Psaki.

"Tonight's events, including the president's remarks, will highlight the magnitude of loss that this milestone marks for the American people and so many families across the country," she said. "He will also speak to the power of the American people to turn the tide on this pandemic by working together, following public health guidelines and getting in line to be vaccinated as soon as they are eligible."

Monday's event comes nearly a year into the coronavirus pandemic, and just over a month after the U.S. crossed the threshold of 400,000 confirmed deaths. It has the highest recorded number of cases and deaths in the world, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, with communities of color hit disproportionately hard.

The milestone of half a million confirmed deaths exceeds the worst-case projections from the start of the pandemic, NPR's Allison Aubrey said on Morning Edition. And new research shows that average U.S. life expectancy dropped by a year in the first half of 2020, with the pandemic mostly to blame.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden's chief medical adviser, described the pandemic's toll as historic in a Sunday interview with CNN's State of the Union.

"It's nothing like we've ever been through in the last 102 years, since the 1918 influenza pandemic," Fauci said. "To have these many people to have died from a respiratory-borne infection, it really is a terrible situation that we've been through, and that we're still going through."

As of this month, the U.S. is starting to see a decline in average new daily infections, which dropped below 100,000 for the first time since November. But, as new and highly transmissible variants continue to circulate, the race to get vaccines into Americans' arms remains as urgent as ever.

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Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.