Thousands of flags adorn the National Mall to mark 200,000 deaths from COVID-19, one of numerous tributes to the lost as the U.S. closes in on a once-unfathomable milestone in its battle with a virus unknown to humans one year ago.
The COVID Memorial Project, which describes itself as a group of D.C. volunteers, said it planned to install most of its 20,000 flags — one for every 10 deaths — late Monday and early Tuesday on the Washington Monument grounds facing the White House.
Johns Hopkins University’s closely watched tracker said nearly 199,750 people in the U.S. had died from COVID-19 as of late Monday, meaning the nation would likely hit 200,000 by the end of the day or early Tuesday.
A top government scientist, Dr. Deborah Birx, raised eyebrows in March when she said the death toll would climb to 200,000 even “if we do things almost perfectly.”
Unfortunately, she was right about the toll.
Many critics say the federal response and Americans’ behavior have been far from perfect, kicking off a new round of finger-pointing as the somber benchmark arrives in the middle of an election season.
Some point squarely at President Trump after he acknowledged downplaying the coronavirus early on. The Democratic National Committee is posting photos of signs across the country that say: “Trump lied, 200,000 died.”
Mr. Trump’s November opponent, Democrat Joseph R. Biden, said Monday that Americans cannot become “numb” to COVID-19 and its sobering death count and that complacency will cost more lives.
He said in a speech in Wisconsin, “200,000 deaths, all across this nation, and it means there are empty chairs at dining room tables and kitchen tables that weeks ago were filled with loved ones — a mom or dad or brother or sister,” the former vice president said in Manitowoc.
“What worries me now is we’ve been living with this pandemic so long we’re risking become numb to the toll it has taken on the country and communities like this,” Mr. Biden said.
“We can’t let the numbers become statistics and background noise, just a blur that we see on the nightly news.”
With six weeks to go until the election, Mr. Biden pinned the crisis — one of the “gravest losses of American life in history” — on Mr. Trump. He faulted the president’s lukewarm support for mask-wearing as he presided over rallies from the podium.
While supporters pack into events, “Trump keeps his distance,” Mr. Biden said.
“For Trump, these rallies are about entertainment, adoration and not respect,” he said. “Don’t kid yourself: This is a one-way street.”
The U.S. has roughly 4% of the worldwide population, yet it has accounted for about a fifth of the globe’s nearly 1 million deaths since the coronavirus was discovered in Wuhan, China, in December.
Mr. Trump focused on the economic recovery instead of the death toll during a Monday speech on jobs at Dayton International Airport in western Ohio, where supporters packed shoulder to shoulder in an airport hanger and few wore masks.
“Now we’re building it up again rapidly,” Mr. Trump said.
The president rejects critics who say he didn’t take the virus seriously. He says he saved millions of lives with travel restrictions early this year and likes to compare his performance favorably with Mr. Biden’s performance as vice president during the H1N1 pandemic in 2009-2010, when an estimated 12,000 died.
“It was a much less lethal situation [in terms of the pathogen itself], but it was handled so badly. They lost thousands and thousands of people,” Mr. Trump told “Fox and Friends” on Monday.
His administration frequently points to travel restrictions, efforts to build ventilators and secure therapies — such as remdesivir — as proof of a competent response to the pandemic.
Mr. Trump also says a vaccine is proceeding at a record-breaking pace and should be available before the end of the year.
There have been signs of progress in the fight against COVID-19. The seven-day rolling average of coronavirus infections in the U.S. stands at roughly 41,000, down from 66,000 in July but far higher than the 22,000 or so in early June — a baseline that experts say is too high.
The U.S. isn’t the only country struggling.
Nations around the world have wrangled with the coronavirus, a formidable and unpredictable enemy, and parts of Europe that controlled the virus early on are showing alarming spikes.
White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow on Monday blamed troubles abroad for slumping markets on Wall Street. The S&P 500 fell 38.41 points, or 1.2%, to 3,281.06, extending the index’s losing streak to four days.
The U.S. is in a “much better position, thankfully,” he said. “We’ve regained control of both of the cases and fatalities. But I think people are worried about Britain and maybe the rest of Europe as well.”
It’s difficult to predict the course of the disease in coming weeks as public behavior changes and scientists get a better handle on how to treat it. Scientists are worried that the virus will spread quickly in the colder months, when respiratory diseases tend to circulate more easily.
Earlier this month, a closely watched model, from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine, forecast 400,000 deaths by Jan. 1 unless Americans become more vigilant about mask-wearing and social distancing.
For now, the country is recognizing the damage that’s been done.
The COVID Memorial Project said it is not affiliated with a larger organization but will have House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, and Sister Simone Campbell of Network, an advocate for Obamacare and other liberal causes, on hand for an interfaith memorial service Tuesday.
“This administration has done nothing to memorialize this stunning number of lives lost — instead choosing to downplay, minimize, and ignore whenever possible,” the group said in a press release. “No flags lowered, no service held, no day of mourning declared.”