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U.S. President Joe Biden walks by freezers used to hold the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine as he tours a Pfizer manufacturing site with Albert Bourla, Pfizer CEO, in Portage, Mich. on Feb. 19, 2021.

Evan Vucci/The Associated Press

The United States faces a dark milestone despite a recent decline in COVID-19 cases as it prepares to mark a staggering half million deaths this week, nearly a year after the novel coronavirus pandemic upended the country with duelling public health and economic crises.

While the number of COVID-19 cases fell for the fifth straight week and officials scrambled to inoculate the population, the nation prepared to soon reach 500,000 deaths from the highly infectious respiratory disease.

“It’s nothing like we’ve ever been through in the last 102 years since the 1918 influenza pandemic… It really is a terrible situation that we’ve been through – and that we’re still going through,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, White House COVID-19 medical adviser and the nation’s top infectious disease official, told CNN’s “State of the Union” program on Sunday.

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The White House has said it will memorialize the moment but had no immediate comment on Sunday about its plans. President Joe Biden last month observed America’s COVID-19 deaths on the eve of his inauguration with a sundown ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial’s Reflecting Pool.

Biden will use “his own voice and platform to take a moment to remember the people whose lives have been lost, the families who are still suffering … at what is still a very difficult moment in this country,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters on Friday.

More than 28 million COVID cases have rocked the United States and 497,862 have died, even as daily average deaths and hospitalizations have fallen to the lowest levels since before the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. The virus took a full year off the average life expectancy in the United States, the biggest decline since World War Two.

While the decline “is really terrific … we are still at a level that’s very high,” Fauci said in a separate interview on NBC News’ “Meet the Press” program. “We want to get that baseline really, really, really low before we start thinking that we’re out of the woods.”

Fauci told CNN that Americans may still need masks in 2022 even as other measures to stop the virus’ spread become increasingly relaxed and more vaccines are administered, and they may need a booster shot depending on how variants emerge.

Less than 15 per cent of the U.S. population has received at least one vaccine dose, with nearly 43 million getting at least one shot and nearly 18 million getting a second shot, U.S. statistics show.

Meanwhile, more localities are easing some restrictions, such as on indoor dining, and moving to reopen schools even as millions await their shots, sparking debate over the safety of teachers, students and others.

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Financial pressures also continue to weigh even as economists express optimism for the year ahead. Congress is weighing Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus aid package, with the House is expected to vote on it this week and the Senate seeking to pass it before March 14.

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