The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Memorial held outside White House in solemn reminder of more than 200,000 Americans killed by covid-19

With the White House in the background, 20,000 chairs, each representing 10 Americans killed by the novel coronavirus, are lined up Sunday on the Ellipse for the first National Covid-19 Remembrance. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Nearly five months after his father’s death, Brian Walter still can’t shake the feeling that he might’ve caused it.

As a New York City subway worker, Walter, 46, was exempt from the stay-at-home mandate that he hoped would keep others in his family safe. He became the designated shopper for his parents and sanitized everything he brought into their home.

But despite all their precautions, Walter and his father, John, both contracted the novel coronavirus, and after 19 days in the hospital, John Walter died May 10.

On Sunday, Brian Walter was one of nearly two dozen people directly affected by the coronavirus to mourn the more than 200,000 American who have been killed by covid-19 and push for a national plan for recovery.

They gathered on the grassy Ellipse just south of the White House and in proximity to the Rose Garden, where those attending President Trump’s announcement of his Supreme Court nominee flouted recommendations on wearing masks and social distancing. Trump and at least eight other people who attended the Sept. 26 ceremony have since tested positive for the coronavirus.

Little evidence that White House has offered contact tracing, guidance to hundreds potentially exposed

“It’s very important we get the message across that this is not a hoax or a conspiracy or a fake illness,” Walter said. “Just because it hasn’t affected you personally doesn’t mean it’s not real. The events of last weekend prove that you can be isolated for a while, but if you make one wrong move, the virus could get you.”

Walter looked at 20,000 empty black chairs that had been placed on the Ellipse over the weekend, each representing 10 people in the United States who have died of covid-19. The U.S. coronavirus death toll soared past 200,000 last month, and Covid Survivors for Change, a network aimed at helping those affected by the virus locate support groups and other resources, declared Sunday a national day of remembrance.

The group recruited local volunteers to set up the installation. They began removing the chairs after the event Sunday.

Those who spoke reflected the myriad ways the pandemic has shaken people’s lives. A Virginia teacher who worried for the health of her students. A Black entrepreneur who is struggling to get by. An emergency room nurse who was hospitalized with the virus and lost her brother to covid-19 weeks later.

While each speaker’s story was different, their message was the same: The pandemic is far from over, and a national strategy with cohesive leadership is the only way to prevent another 200,000 deaths.

Rose Garden event suspected of virus outbreak alarms D.C. officials

“When I watched that Rose Garden event I was horrified. I saw children and adults and elderly people all unmasked and not socially distanced, against all recommendations we have,” said Dara Kass, an emergency medicine physician and associate professor of emergency medicine at Columbia University Medical Center.

“When I think of the 200,000 who have died, and all the people who will be infected because of how his administration behaved, it continues to disappoint me not only as a doctor, but as an American,” she said.

Kass, who spoke Sunday, said she was especially concerned about those who went to the Rose Garden ceremony and didn’t immediately self-quarantine, even after it became apparent someone in attendance was infected. Attorney General William P. Barr decided not to self-quarantine even though he was exposed at the event, the New York Times reported. Kellyanne Conway, former senior adviser to the president, tweeted that she would go into quarantine Friday night only after she learned that had she tested positive for the virus.

“How many people did she infect in the time she found out someone was infectious near her?” Kass asked. “How many people will be infected by those actions that day, and how many people will we never know about?”

D.C. region records highest coronavirus count in two weeks after recent declines

Those who spoke at the remembrance were joined by faith leaders, health-care professionals and other front-line workers impacted by the pandemic. They were led by Grammy-winning singer Dionne Warwick, a former U.S. ambassador for health who played a key role in combating the AIDS crisis.

“The loss of lives has grown daily, leaving us all directly or indirectly affected by this disease,” Warwick told the group. “It takes all of us to raise our voices — we know we can’t always rely on the folks in charge to hear us unless we say it loudly and clearly.”

Warwick also touched on the disproportionate impact the coronavirus has had on people of color, and she praised front-line and essential workers “who have endured so much to keep us fed, housed and educated.” She added: “We have not done enough to honor those sacrifices, and our country has not given them what they need to help and keep us going.”

Concerns about the coronavirus were amplified further in the Washington region Friday, when health officials in the District, Maryland and Virginia reported the highest single-day number of cases since Sept. 18.

Aarion Brown, a U.S. Postal Service worker, said he gets frustrated thinking about how the government prepared during the onset of the virus.

Brown said the D.C. building where he works has had six confirmed coronavirus cases in the past month, and as a representative for his union, he lamented that more than six months into the pandemic, he still cannot assure his colleagues that it’s safe for them to come to work.

Feeling more vulnerable than ever, Brown called on U.S. leaders to respond to the crisis with more accurate testing, improved contact tracing protocols and “leaders who do not hide the truth from the American people.”

Said Brown: “Trump wasn’t doing enough to prepare people. He knew it was real, but downplayed it so people wouldn’t panic. With Trump in the hospital, it shows he didn’t take it seriously. If he didn’t take it seriously, how can we expect him to lead?”

Coronavirus news in D.C., Virginia and Maryland

The latest: More than two years into the pandemic, covid cases in the D.C. region are rising again, , while liberal Montgomery County asks who deserves credit for its robust covid response. Meanwhile, Black funeral directors still face a daunting amount of deaths from covid and the omicron wave has had an unequal toll in the DMV.

At-home tests: Here’s how to use at-home covid tests, where to find them and how they differ from PCR tests.

Mapping the spread: Tens of thousands have died in the local region and nationwide cases number in the hundreds of thousands.

Omicron: Remaining covid restrictions in the D.C.-area, plus a breakdown of variant symptoms and mask recommendations.

Get the latest local news: Sign up for the Morning and Afternoon newsletter