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Biden mourns 500,000 dead, balancing nation's grief and hope

WASHINGTON — With sunset remarks and a national moment of silence, President Joe Biden on Monday confronted head-on the country’s once-unimaginable loss — half a million Americans in the COVID-19 pandemic — as he tried to strike a balance between mourning and hope.

Addressing the “grim, heartbreaking milestone” directly and publicly, Biden stepped to a lectern in the White House Cross Hall, unhooked his face mask and delivered an emotion-filled eulogy for 500,071 Americans he said he felt he knew.

“We often hear people described as ordinary Americans. There’s no such thing,” he said Monday evening. “There’s nothing ordinary about them. The people we lost were extraordinary.”

“Just like that,” he added, “so many of them took their last breath alone.”

A president whose own life has been marked by family tragedy, Biden spoke in deeply personal terms, referencing his own losses as he tried to comfort the huge number of Americans whose lives have been forever changed by the pandemic.

“I know all too well. I know what it’s like to not be there when it happens,” said Biden, who has long addressed grief more powerfully than perhaps any other American public figure. “I know what it’s like when you are there, holding their hands, as they look in your eye and they slip away. That black hole in your chest, you feel like you’re being sucked into it.”

The president, who lost his first wife and baby daughter in a car collision and later an adult son to brain cancer, leavened the grief with a message of hope.

“We ask you to join us, to remember so we can heal, to find purpose in the work ahead, to show that there is light in the darkness,” he said.

“This nation will smile again. This nation will know sunny days again. This nation will no joy again. And as we do, we’ll remember each person we’ve lost, the lives they lived, the loved ones they left behind.”

He said, “We have to resist becoming numb to the sorrow. We have to resist viewing each life as a statistic or a blur or, on the news. We must do so to honor the dead. But, equally important, to care for the living.”

The president ordered flags on federal property lowered to half staff for five days and then led the moment of communal mourning for those lost to a virus that often prevents people from gathering to remember their loved ones. Monday’s bleak threshold of 500,000 deaths was playing out against contradictory crosscurrents: an encouraging drop in coronavirus cases and worries about the spread of more contagious variants.

Biden’s management of the pandemic will surely define at least the first year of his presidency, and his response has showcased the inherent tension between preparing the nation for dark weeks ahead while also offering optimism about pushing out vaccines that could, eventually, bring this American tragedy to a close.

After he spoke, the president along with first lady Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff stood outside the White House for a moment of silence at sundown. Black bunting draped the doorway they walked through. Five hundred brilliantly lit candles — each standing for 1,000 people lost — illuminated the stairways on either side of them as the Marine Band played a mournful rendition of “Amazing Grace.”

The milestone comes just over a year after the first confirmed U.S. fatality from the coronavirus. The pandemic has since swept across the world and the U.S., stressing the nation’s health care system, rattling its economy and rewriting the rules of everyday society.

Biden unblinkingly recited the staggering statistics, noting that more Americans have died in one year in the pandemic “than in World War One or Two and the Vietnam War combined. That’s more lives lost to this virus than any other nation on Earth.”

In one of his many symbolic breaks with his predecessor, Biden has not shied away from offering remembrances for the lives lost to the virus. His first stop after arriving in Washington on the eve of his inauguration was to attend a twilight ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool to mourn the dead.

That somber moment on the eve of Biden’s inauguration — typically a celebratory time when America marks the democratic tradition of a peaceful transfer of power — was a measure of the enormity of loss for the nation.

The COVID-19 death total in the United States had just crossed 400,000 when Biden took the oath of office. An additional 100,000 have died in the past month.

Former President Donald Trump invariably looked to play down the total, initially claiming the virus would go away on its own and later locking into a prediction that America would suffer far fewer than 100,000 deaths. Once the total eclipsed that mark, Trump shifted gears again and said that scale of loss was actually a success story because it could have been much worse.

Outside of perfunctory tweets marking the milestones of 100,000 and 200,000 deaths, Trump oversaw no moment of national mourning, no memorial service. At the Republican National Convention, he made no mention of the suffering, leaving that to first lady Melania Trump.

And at campaign rallies across the nation, he erroneously predicted that the nation was “rounding the corner” on the virus while he disregarded safety measures such as masks and pushed governors to lift restrictions against public health advice. In audio tapes released last fall, it was revealed that Trump told journalist Bob Woodward in March that “I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down because I don’t want to create a panic.”

Biden, by contrast, has long drawn on his own personal tragedy as he comforts those who grieve. He has pledged to level with the American public on the severity of the crisis and has repeatedly warned that the nation was going through a “very dark winter,” one now challenged by the arrival of more contagious virus variants.

Biden also has deliberately set expectations low — particularly on vaccinations and when the nation can return to normal — knowing he could land a political win by exceeding them. He is on track to far exceed his initial promise to deliver 100 million vaccinations in his first 100 days, with some public health experts now urging him to set a far more ambitious goal. The administration says it expects to have enough vaccine available for every American by the end of July.

Biden’s reference to next Christmas for a possible return to normalcy raised eyebrows across a pandemic-weary nation and seemed less optimistic than projections made by others in his own administration, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has suggested a summer comeback.

Fort Ann resident Bob Bishop and Queensbury residents Chris and Nate Mack ride their snowmobiles on the Champlain Canal between Whitehall and Fort Ann on Sunday under blue skies. Trails in Washington County were busy with riders this weekend.

Lila Walter, 'Queen of Warren Center,' survives coronavirus at 106

QUEENSBURY — Lila Walter, 106, was not impressed by the coronavirus.

When the former Thurman resident tested positive at Warren Center in Queensbury, the nursing home quickly moved her to isolation. But she never had any noticeable symptoms.

So, to her, the virus was mainly an imposition to her people-loving life.

“It was terrible. I felt like I’d been worse than in a jail,” she said of her quarantine.

It was the injustice of it all that bothered her. Last year, when the pandemic began, she organized a petition drive to demand that residents be allowed back outside into the courtyard. Initially, everyone was kept in their rooms to keep people from congregating.

She called her daughter Ann Rohe, of Thurman, but not to complain.

“She called me and asked me to write up a petition,” Rohe said in a tone of disbelief. “They all signed it and they got to go out there for a while."

It wasn’t the first petition drive Walter had ever run. It wasn’t even the second one.

“She’s an amazing person,” Rohe said. “She got petitions to get a phone line to Walters Trading Center.”

Walter and her husband opened the store, in Thurman, and used the petitions to get a phone line run to the store.

When Walter was 40, her husband Loren died of a heart attack at a fire, where he was working as a volunteer firefighter. On her own, Walter opened the first private campground in Thurman, called Glen Hudson, along the Hudson River. She turned to petitions again.

“That’s how she got electricity run to the campsite,” Rohe said, adding that when her mother was frustrated by the limits at the nursing home during the pandemic, it was natural to think back to her previous petition successes.

Walter also urged her children to ignore another pandemic rule. She wanted them to sneak in so they could visit her.

Although Walter remembers her past and can describe her life in detail, she can’t quite understand why no one is allowed to visit indoors. She believes her children have decided not to come in, and she’s quite hurt by it.

But Rohe, 72, trudges through the snow along the side of the building to get to her mother’s window.

Walter’s other daughter, Laurona Dibble, is in her 80s, lives in Florida and in visits can’t make it through the snow. That’s hard on Walter, who doesn’t understand why one daughter can wave from the window, but won’t come in, and the other doesn’t even come to the window. Aides at the nursing home keep trying to explain. It is a common misunderstanding among nursing home residents, and one of the many heartbreaking things about the pandemic.

For her birthday last year, both daughters were able to come, and aides keep reminding her of that and reassuring her that her children love her.

Walter is not the type of person to passively accept problems. When she struggled to hear during a Zoom interview with a Post-Star reporter, due to a malfunctioning hearing aid, she said calmly that she would simply tell the story of her life and hope that it answered whatever questions anyone had wanted to ask.

“I’m afraid I’m giving a boring interview,” she said, just after describing how she befriended a Japanese student after World War II and sponsored him at her home for about six years.

That started when Rohe, in high school at the time, was assigned a pen pal from Japan. They wrote back and forth for some time, and then his father wrote to Walter to say that the boy would like to come to the United States but could not do so without a sponsor. She offered to sponsor him, and he attended Warrensburg High School while working at her campground in the summers.

The boy had a bit of a shock when he arrived and met Rohe.

“She’d never written that she had a boyfriend over here, so he thought she was looking for a boyfriend,” Walter said with a laugh. “But that was not the case. He was very interested in her but she wasn’t interested in marrying him.”

He stayed anyway. He had already graduated from high school in Japan but wanted to practice his English, so he enrolled at Warrensburg High School, Rohe said.

Some neighbors weren’t thrilled by his arrival, Walter said.

“She (Rohe) wasn’t prejudiced but a lot of the people who lived around us were” because a “very dear friend” in the area had been killed by the Japanese two decades earlier during World War II, she said.

“When he went back to Japan, his mother wrote me a nice letter,” she continued. “She invited me over to her place and I went.”

She spent a month in Japan during the World’s Fair in 1970. The boy’s parents took her all over the country, showing her many of the most popular sights.

Walter also worked as a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse, first in Thurman and then in Johnsburg. She got her teaching certificate at Oneonta Normal School (which became SUNY Oneonta).

“The first year that I taught I had 32 pupils in all eight grades,” she said. “I always thought I wanted to be a teacher, but when I had 32 children in eight grades I was inclined to change my mind.”

Later, she took a teaching job in Johnsburg, where she only had eight students, which she much preferred. Still, she only taught for about eight years.

“I wasn’t crazy about it,” she said.

At Thurman, one of the 32 students was her 4-year-old daughter, who came to work with her and thus started school early.

She can’t remember the polio epidemics that hit during her children’s childhoods, nor can she particularly remember what vaccines she got over the course of her long life. After getting coronavirus, she declined the vaccine. After all, she had survived it without any symptoms.

And now she is free to demand justice for her fellow residents whenever necessary.

They love her. During the pandemic, they crowned her “Queen of Warren Center.”

Two Warren County residents die of COVID

Two elderly Warren County residents, both of whom lived independently, have died of coronavirus, Warren County Health Services reported Monday.

Both people were hospitalized before their deaths. They were in their 80s and 90s.

There was no immediately word as to whether they were vaccinated. Their age group was eligible to get vaccinated beginning a month ago, but many elderly people have struggled to get an appointment, due to a lack of computer access or transportation. The amount of vaccine is also still very limited, so people who meet the age requirement and got an appointment are, in many cases, still waiting to get their first dose.

They were the 65th and 66th COVID deaths in the county.

“Sadly, once again as we begin to turn a corner into vaccinations and decreased COVID cases, we are faced with delivering sad news to our community that we have lost two more of our friends, neighbors and loved ones to this pandemic,” said Rachel Seeber, chairwoman of the Warren County Board of Supervisors, in a statement. “While new COVID cases continue to decline and vaccine efforts are increasing by the day, please understand that this disease is still present and still deadly. Keep the victims of this health emergency in your thoughts and prayers as we work our hardest to bring the vaccine to our communities so we no longer have to mourn losses to COVID-19.”

Nursing home rules

Beginning Friday, visitors will be allowed indoors without testing at nursing homes where the county’s positivity rate is under 5% and there have been no cases at the home in the past two weeks.

Those visitors won’t have to get tested, but state officials said they encourage visitors to get tested anyway.

If the county’s positivity rate is 5% to 10%, visitors must get tested within 72 hours of their visit.

Rapid tests are allowed. Visitors who have been fully vaccinated, including the two-week wait after the second dose, don’t have to get tested until 90 days after their second shot. However, state officials encouraged them to get tested anyway. If the county’s positivity rate goes above 10%, no visitors are allowed except when a resident is near death.

The state is limiting visitors to 20% of the residents at any one time, so that nursing homes are not overwhelmed. Nursing homes must also set up the visit in an otherwise empty room (including the resident’s room, while a roommate is out).

Vaccine update

Washington County has finally received last week’s vaccine shipment, which was delayed due to snowstorms in other states. The county was planning to use its shipment for second doses for those vaccinated last month. All of the residents who were to receive their second dose on Feb. 18 or Feb 22 have been rescheduled for this Wednesday. They have all been sent an email asking them to pick a time between 2:30 p.m. and 6 p.m., and officials asked them to keep an eye out for the email and respond as soon as possible. The email will be sent to the email address used to make the first appointment.

Warren County also received its shipment today, for 200 doses, and expects 100 more doses later in the week. Of the 300 doses, the state is requiring the county to vaccinate 200 essential workers. The other 100 doses are being sent to physicians’ offices to vaccinate their highest-risk patients with comorbidities. Physicians are contacting those patients.

School cases

Queensbury Union Free School District reported that a district-wide employee who was last in the building on Feb. 18 has tested positive, as has a person who was in Queensbury High School on Feb. 4.

Granville Central School District announced stricter mask rules. Due to the infection rate in Washington County and the surrounding counties, Granville will require everyone to wear a mask at any time that they cannot maintain a 6-foot distance.

Monday’s statistics

  • Warren County reported nine new cases, for a total of 2,640 confirmed cases since the pandemic began, and 18 recoveries, for a total of 2,482 recoveries among confirmed cases.
  • There are 92 people currently ill, three of whom are hospitalized. That’s two fewer than Sunday, due to the two fatalities. All three remaining patients are moderately ill, as are two people who are not hospitalized. It is important to note that one of the patients who died was classified Sunday as moderately ill (the other was in critical condition).
  • Washington County reported 11 new cases, for a total of 2,020 confirmed cases since the pandemic began, and 17 recoveries, for a total of 1,902 recoveries. There are 82 people currently ill, three of whom are hospitalized, which is two fewer than on Sunday.
  • Saratoga County reported two COVID deaths, for a total of 143 deaths since the pandemic began. The county also reported 158 new cases since Thursday, for a total of 11,642 confirmed cases since the pandemic began. There were 1,352 recoveries, for a total of 11,153 recoveries. There are 346 people currently ill and 18 are hospitalized, eight fewer than on Thursday.
  • In the northern Saratoga County towns, there was one new case, in Victory.
  • Still ill: four town of Corinth residents, six village of Corinth residents, 17 Hadley residents, 29 Moreau residents, nine Northumberland residents, four town of Saratoga residents, seven Schuylerville residents, 10 South Glens Falls residents, one Victory resident and 31 Wilton residents.
  • Recovered: 20 town of Corinth residents, 11 village of Corinth residents, 12 Hadley residents, 79 Moreau residents, 22 Northumberland residents, 21 town of Saratoga residents, 21 South Glens Falls residents, three Schuylerville residents and 104 Wilton residents.
  • Deaths since March: two in the town of Corinth, none in the village of Corinth, one in Hadley, 11 in Moreau, none in Northumberland, one in the town of Saratoga, five in Wilton, none in Schuylerville, none in South Glens Falls and none in Victory.
  • Essex County reported 24 new cases since Friday.
  • Glens Falls Hospital reported 10 coronavirus patients, down from 13 on Friday. One patient is in intensive care and two patients are no longer contagious, but not well enough to be discharged.
  • Saratoga Hospital reported nine coronavirus patients, down from 14 on Friday.

On Sunday, the most recent day this data is available:

  • The Capital Region reported 160 new cases, a positive test rate of 2.8%, which increased the weekly average to 2%.
  • Warren County had a positive test rate of 2.2%, which increased the weekly average to 2.2%.
  • Washington County had a positive test rate of 3.8%, which increased the weekly average to 3.1%.
  • Saratoga County had a positive test rate of 4.4%, which increased the weekly average to 2.5%.
  • Essex County had a positive test rate of 2.9%, which decreased the weekly average to 3.3%.
  • Statewide, 6,146 people tested positive for the virus, a increased positive test rate of 4.33%. A total of 5,804 people were hospitalized with coronavirus on Sunday and 89 people died.