UPDATE 2-Bells and candlelight to honor 400,000 COVID-19 dead on eve of Trump's White House departure

(Adds details on light ceremonies in U.S. cities, U.S. surpassed 24 million COVID-19 cases)

WASHINGTON, Jan 19 (Reuters) - From the Lincoln Memorial to the Empire State building, landmarks across the United States will be illuminated on Tuesday evening as part of a ceremony led by President-elect Joe Biden to honor the nearly 400,000 Americans who have died from COVID-19.

The commemoration comes just hours before President Donald Trump leaves the White House and hands over a country in crisis. The ceremony, spearheaded by Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, will be the federal government's first nod to the staggering death toll from the pandemic.

Biden and Harris will lead a lighting ceremony at the Reflecting Pool at the Lincoln Memorial at 5:15 p.m. ET (2215 GMT), followed by a moment of silence and 400 bell tolls at the National Cathedral to symbolically honor the COVID-19 dead.

"Hundreds of towns, cities, tribes, landmarks, and communities all across the country have committed to joining the tribute in a national moment of unity," Biden's inaugural committee said in a statement.

The United States surpassed 24 million COVID-19 infections on Tuesday and was on track to pass 400,000 deaths, according to a Reuters tally. The country has recorded more than 200,000 new cases and 3,220 deaths on average over the last seven days. (Graphic: https://tmsnrt.rs/34pvUyi)

Among the other landmarks participating in the lighting ceremony were the Empire State building in New York City and the Space Needle in Seattle, according to the statement. The inaugural committee said it was encouraging Americans to light candles in their windows and churches to ring their bells in a show of unity.

Local officials from Miami, Florida, to San Diego, California, said buildings in their cities would be lit for the occasion.

The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City was inviting the public to light a candle on its front steps on Tuesday evening before a solemn bell toll.

NEW CHAPTER IN PANDEMIC RESPONSE

The ceremony marks the beginning of a new era in the country's battle against COVID-19 under Biden, who has pledged to make coronavirus relief a top priority when he takes office on Wednesday under unprecedented security measures in the nation's capital.

Biden will inherit a grieving and sickened nation from Trump, who critics say was to blame for a disjointed and ineffectual response to the pandemic, resulting in the United States having the highest COVID-19 death toll in the world.

On Tuesday, his last full day as president, Trump had no public events scheduled, although U.S. Vice President Mike Pence was planning to convene the White House Coronavirus Task Force for its last meeting under his watch.

Many of Biden's policy plans fly in the face of the Trump administration's approach to combating the pandemic. They include a mask mandate that would apply to federal properties, planes and buses and a recommitment to the World Health Organization after Trump's withdrawal from the agency.

Biden will also face the daunting task of overseeing the nation's COVID-19 vaccine distribution and administration. The United States is trailing in its vaccination goal, with only 12.3 million shots administered out of more than 31 million distributed as of Jan. 15, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

States, tasked with rolling out their own vaccine programs, have lamented a lack of funding and support from the federal government. Some localities say they do not have adequate supply to meet demand.

Mayor Bill de Blasio on Tuesday warned New York City will run out of vaccine doses as soon as Thursday and will be forced to cancel many appointments if it does not get resupplied quickly.

"We will have literally nothing left to give as of Friday," de Blasio told a news conference.

Biden has said he will seek a $1.9 trillion spending proposal that includes funding for accelerating the distribution of coronavirus vaccines, and Democrats, who now hold a slight majority in Congress, hope to prioritize state and local aid in the next stimulus deal.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey and Heather Timmons in Washington, Maria Caspani, Barbara Goldberg and Peter Szekely in New York and Gabriella Borter in Florida; Writing by Gabriella Borter; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

01/19/2021 20:06

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