"As we pray, we must act swiftly to put an end to this pandemic and to stem the suffering felt by so many millions," Nancy Pelosi said

By Virginia Chamlee
February 24, 2021 04:30 PM
Advertisement
Congress COVID vigil
Center, from left: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer along with other members of Congress participate in a moment of silence for the 500,000 killed by COVID-19 in the U.S.
| Credit: Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty

One day after the U.S. death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic passed 500,000, and nearly one year after the country's first COVID-19 death was reported, Congress held a candlelight vigil on the steps of the U.S. Capitol Tuesday evening in honor of those killed in America.

In a moving scene, House and Senate members from both parties stood clutching candles, spaced six feet apart as they held a moment of silence for the many lives lost.

A singer reportedly performed "Take My Hand" and "Precious Lord."

In a statement issued Monday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that members of Congress would "join Americans in prayer for the lives lost or devastated by this vicious virus" at the vigil. 

"As we pray, we must act swiftly to put an end to this pandemic and to stem the suffering felt by so many millions," Pelosi said.

In addition to Pelosi, other lawmakers who took part included Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Democrat Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy.

Congress COVID vigil
Congress' COVID-19 vigil
| Credit: Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty

The Capitol vigil was held one day after President Joe Biden, First Lady Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and ​Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff took part in a moment of silence and candle-lighting ceremony at the White House. 

At that ceremony, 500 candles lit the staircases leading up to the balcony of the South Portico.

In remarks delivered prior to the moment of silence, Biden reflected on the immense death toll.

"Today we mark a truly heartbreaking milestone: 500,071 dead," he said. "That's more Americans who have died in one year in this pandemic than in World War I, World War II, and the Vietnam War combined. That's more lives lost to this virus than any other nation on Earth."

Congress COVID vigil
Congress' COVID-19 vigil
| Credit: Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, said this week the staggering death toll is something that should not have happened in such a wealthy country.

Fauci, the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in an interview with Reuters that the pandemic was "the worst thing that's happened to this country with regard to the health of the nation in over 100 years."

With two vaccines currently being distributed and more on the way, health experts including Fauci have said they expect some semblance of normalcy to return later this year, though that will depend on how many people get vaccinated.

Congress COVID vigil
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (left) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell at a COVID-19 candlelight vigil on Tuesday
| Credit: Al Drago/Getty

Congress is also currently debating a $1.9 trillion COVID relief package that, if passed, would be the third such piece of stimulus legislation to become law over the past year.

The House is expected to vote on the measure this week and it would then advance to the Senate, which will likely make several changes before voting on the bill.

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from the CDCWHO and local public health departments. PEOPLE has partnered with GoFundMe to raise money for the COVID-19 Relief Fund, a GoFundMe.org fundraiser to support everything from frontline responders to families in need, as well as organizations helping communities. For more information or to donate, click here.