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Biden's message shifts from mourning the dead to the tactical fight against COVID


When he first moved into the White House, President Biden spent a lot of time talking about the number of people who have died in the pandemic. But as the year went on and the death toll grew, his emphasis has changed.

NPR's Tamara Keith takes a closer look.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing) As long as life endures.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: At sunset the evening before he took the oath of office, Joe Biden did something he said the nation needed after a year and a half of COVID-19 deaths.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: To heal, we must remember. It's hard sometimes to remember. But that's how we heal.

KEITH: It was a remembrance ceremony for the more than 400,000 Americans who had died. A month later, Biden was back.


BIDEN: Today we mark a truly grim, heartbreaking milestone - 500,071 dead.

KEITH: Biden was reading the number from a card he pulled from his pocket - a card he carries with him every day. But as time has passed, he's referenced it less and less often. Biden's public statements now focus on the tactical work of fighting the pandemic, not mourning the lives lost.

Kristin Urquiza yearns for a return to those now-distant memorials.

KRISTIN URQUIZA: You know, I lost my dad in May of 2020. And I'm still struggling with it.

KEITH: Urquiza shared her dad's story at the Democratic National Convention. And she started a group called Marked by COVID, which is trying to draw more attention to the lives lost in hopes of saving others. She had hoped Biden would keep marking the grim milestones. But then 600,000 came and went with little mention.

URQUIZA: I was shocked.

KEITH: Since then, the death toll has risen - 700,000, 800,000. Urquiza says it's a missed opportunity to remind people what's at stake.

URQUIZA: You know, I think a lot of people who've been close to the issue are just feeling like the president used COVID to get elected, and not much has changed.

KEITH: Carrie Pizano thought she had made it through the pandemic without her worst fears coming true. She's a nurse in San Diego - participated in a vaccine trial and volunteered giving COVID shots for months.

CARRIE PIZANO: Selfishly, I didn't want to know anyone who died from this.

KEITH: Then two months ago, she got a devastating call. Her grandmother was in the hospital, and her uncle soon followed.

PIZANO: I thought they were vaccinated. I 100% thought they were vaccinated. Grandma was proud of me. We talked about it all the time.

KEITH: But they weren't. Her uncle and grandmother died of COVID within two weeks of each other.

PIZANO: She had other ailments going on, but she did not need to die alone, struggling to breathe. It was not necessary. And it's completely devastating and heartbreaking for me to know that's how my sweet grandmother died.

KEITH: Pizano feels like the rest of the country has moved on.

PIZANO: We're all exhausted. We're exhausted about being told to mask. We're exhausted about being told not to see our loved ones. We're exhausted about being told to vaccinate or to not vaccinate. We don't want to see that there's 800,000. Well, I'm sorry you don't want to see it. This is called reality.

KEITH: Biden administration officials say they are focused on the current reality - a rapidly shifting fight with a new variant now raging. They're trying to save lives, and for now their focus isn't on mourning.

And there's a question of whether it would really make sense to pause on the losses now as the death toll continues to climb, says presidential historian Tevi Troy.

TEVI TROY: If you don't know when it's going to end, it's really hard to have a memorial of the deaths. And it would be weird to do a marking every hundred thousand deaths. It's almost like an acknowledgement of failure every time you get that new number in front of all the zeros.

KEITH: He understands why Biden's first instinct was to mark the milestones. It was a break from his predecessor, who didn't mark them at all. And there was a sense that there was a light at the end of the tunnel - that with vaccines, the nightmare would end. But obviously it did not.

DAVID OSHINSKY: We in the United States have a way of commemorating events. Generally, we commemorate them when they're over.

KEITH: David Oshinsky is a medical historian at NYU. He points to 1955 with the end of polio in sight. President Eisenhower held an event at the White House Rose Garden to honor Jonas Salk, who developed the lifesaving vaccine.


DWIGHT EISENHOWER: I have no words in which adequately to express the thanks of myself, all the people I know and all 164 million Americans - to say nothing of all the other people in the world that'll profit from your discovery. I am very, very happy to hand that to you.

OSHINSKY: This was like commemorating the end of World War I.

KEITH: Again, David Oshinsky.

OSHINSKY: I mean, a war had been won - a medical war against an insidious childhood crippler. It had been won.

KEITH: But this is not that moment. Oshinsky says Biden should hold off on another commemoration until COVID is less frightening and killing far fewer people.

OSHINSKY: Each time you do, it kind of loses its impact. And that's a very real problem.

KEITH: But Joshua Sharfstein says drawing more attention to the lives lost could have an impact. He specializes in public health at Johns Hopkins and served in the Obama administration. He says losing a loved one is terrible, no matter your politics. So maybe talking about it could help heal a nation divided over COVID.

JOSHUA SHARFSTEIN: I think there's an opportunity to use that the common pain that people feel to try to bring the country together.

KEITH: Republican pollster Frank Luntz agrees. He thinks if Biden talked more about those who have died - 400,000 since he took office - he could move more people to get vaccinated. Though, Luntz says, it may not be the best politically.

FRANK LUNTZ: As a political adviser, I'd say to him, if you want to be a statesman, talk about these key milestones. If you want to get reelected, ignore them.

KEITH: But right now more than a thousand people a day are dying. And predicting when this pandemic will end or even just fade away has proven impossible. It's hard to look back when you're in the middle of it all.

Tamara Keith, NPR News, the White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHITA'S "MIZORE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
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