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President Joe Biden paid tribute to the more than 500,000 people in the United States who have died from COVID-19, offering words of comfort and hope on Monday as the nation passed a deep benchmark in the fight against the pandemic.

“Today we mark a really dark and heartbreaking milestone: 500,071 dead,” Biden said, speaking to the American people in the White House. “More Americans died in a year in this pandemic than in World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War combined. This is more lives lost to this virus than any other nation on Earth.

Figures from Johns Hopkins University showed on Monday that the United States had passed the dark threshold even as infection rates and deaths began to decline. The pace of deaths over the past month has been shocking as the nation recovers from a spike in cases after the holiday season, even amid the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine. The last 100,000 deaths occurred in just over a month.

Evan Vucci / Associated press

In a speech at the White House on Monday, President Joe Biden reads the number of Americans who have died from COVID-19.

But there are signs of hope. More than 44 million Americans have now received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, and the White House has pledged to have enough doses for almost everyone in the country by July. The pace of vaccinations has almost doubled over the past month.

The president said that even in the midst of this hope, Americans must “remember each person and the life they have lived” and “refrain from seeing each life as a statistic or a blur.”

“We often hear from people described as ordinary Americans,” Biden said. “There is nothing ordinary about them. The people we lost were amazing. They span generations, were born in America, and immigrated to America. But just like that, many of them took their last breaths alone in America.

Earlier today, Biden ordered the White House flags lowered to half staff in honor of those who died during the pandemic. They will stay low for the rest of the week. President and First Lady Jill Biden also held a moment of silence for victims of the pandemic.

Biden mourns 500,000 dead from COVID-19, calls those we lost extraordinary

Alex Wong / Getty Images

President Joe Biden, First Lady Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and Harris’ husband Doug Emhoff participate in a minute of silence at sunset Monday on the South Portico of the White House during a ceremony by candlelight to mark the more than 500,000 lives lost in the United States to COVID-19.

A solemn Biden spoke of his own story of loss after the deaths of his first wife, Neilia, and daughter Naomi, who were killed in a car crash in 1972. His son Beau died of brain cancer in 2015.

“I know too well. I know what it’s like not to be there when it happens, ”the president said. “I know what it’s like when you’re around holding their hands.” Looking into their eyes when they walk away. That black hole in your chest, you feel like you’re being sucked into it. The remorse of a survivor, the anger, questions of faith in his soul.

The president, however, offered hope to those “a year, a month, a week, a day or even an hour” beyond such pain, saying the nation “will smile again.”

“This nation will have good days again. This nation will know joy again. And as we do, we’ll remember each person we’ve lost, the life they’ve lived, and the loved ones they’ve left behind. We will get there. I promise you.”

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