Members of St. Peter’s by the Sea Episcopal Church’s congregation gather for a short prayer after ringing the bell for 300,000 lives lost to COVID-19 (Photo by Erin McKinstry/KCAW)

More than 300,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus since February. In honor of those lives lost, Sitka’s St. Peter’s Episcopal Church joined the National Cathedral and churches around the country, and rang its bell 300 times on Tuesday afternoon (11-15-20).

The bell sounded for 15 minutes: one ring for every 1,000 lives lost. It’s a death toll that’s hard to comprehend, said Steve Gage, who was one of two church members trading off to tug the bell’s heavy rope.

“It made me think that with every nine rings or eight rings or whatever it is, that that’s the entire population of Sitka,” he said. “And we rang 300 times. So it’s real and it’s just kind of hard to take in.”

It’s more than the combined number of Americans killed in World War I (116,516), the Korean War (36,574) and Vietnam (58,220).

“All of these people had a name and a story and a family,” Gage said.

Alaska’s death rate remains one of the lowest in the country, according to the CDC, and Sitka has yet to report a death related to COVID-19. But cases continue to rise. Gage and fellow bell ringer Kit Allgood-Mellema hope this small act will remind Sitkans to remain vigilant by wearing masks, social distancing and washing their hands.

“Well it’s one small thing we can do to honor those people who’ve passed away and most of them have died in really pretty horrible circumstances,” Allgood-Mellema said.

Church members rang the bell in September 200 times for 200,000 lives lost. And they’ll do it again for 400,000. But both Gage and Allgood-Mellema said they hope they don’t have to.

Erin McKinstry is a Report for America corps member.