The United States has crossed the staggering milestone of 500,000 COVID-19 deaths just more than a year since the coronavirus pandemic claimed its first known victim in Santa Clara County, California.
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 honour the lives lost on Monday evening - ringing 500 times to symbolise 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 an emotional speech at the White House after the bells sounded.
A few moments later, Biden, Vice-President Kamala Harris and their spouses appeared wearing black. They stood silently as the hymn Amazing Grace was played.
The country had recorded more than 28 million COVID-19 cases and 500,264 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 coronavirus deaths have occurred in the United States, an outsized figure given that the nation accounts for just four per cent of the world's population.
"These numbers are stunning," Dr Anthony Fauci, a top infectious disease adviser to President Joe Biden told ABC's Good Morning America program. "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 on Monday, Fauci said political divisiveness contributed significantly to the US death toll.
The country's poor performance reflects the lack of a unified, national response last year, when the administration of Donald Trump mostly left states to their own devices in tackling the greatest public health crisis in a century, with the president playing down the pandemic and often in conflict with his own health experts.
In 2020, the virus has taken a full year off the average life expectancy in the United States, 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.
By December, the death toll had reached 300,000 in the United States. In the three months after Thanksgiving, the virus would claim 230,000 lives.
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 started.
Despite the grim milestone, the virus appears to have loosened its grip as COVID-19 cases in United States fell for a sixth week. Health experts warn, however, that coronavirus variants discovered in Britain, South Africa and Brazil could unleash another wave that threatens to reverse the recent positive trends.
© RAW 2021