By Linda So and Nandita Bose
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States faces a dark milestone this week despite a recent decline in COVID-19 cases as it prepares to mark a staggering half-million deaths, with President Joe Biden planning to memorialize the lives lost.
While the number of COVID-19 cases fell for the fifth straight week and officials scrambled to inoculate the population, the nation was poised to reach 500,000 deaths from the highly infectious respiratory disease.
(Graphic: Where coronavirus cases are rising and falling in the United States - https://graphics.reuters.com/HEALTH-CORONAVIRUS/USA-TRENDS/dgkvlgkrkpb/index.html)
It has been nearly a year since the pandemic upended the country with dueling public health and economic crises.
"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.
The White House said on Sunday it planned a memorial event in which Biden would deliver remarks.
A White House spokesman said the president along with first lady Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff would hold a moment of silence on Monday and there would be a candle-lighting ceremony at sundown.
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.
STILL AT 'VERY HIGH' LEVEL
More than 28 million COVID-19 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 on NBC's "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 also need a booster shot depending on how variants emerge.
Less than 15% 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.
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.
Financial pressures also continue to weigh even as economists express optimism for the year ahead. Congress is weighing Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, with the House of Representatives expected to vote on it this week and the Senate seeking to pass it before March 14.
(Reporting by Linda So, Nandita Bose and Michael Martina; Additional reporting by Will Dunham; Writing by Susan Heavey; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Peter Cooney)