March 19 (UPI) -- President Joe Biden condemned violence against Asian Americans during a visit Friday to Atlanta, the site of a series of shootings that left eight people dead at three spas.
He noted a "skyrocketing spike" in violence and racist rhetoric against Asian Americans since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which was first detected in Wuhan, China.
"They've been attacked, blamed, scapegoated and harassed. They've been verbally assaulted, physically assaulted, killed. It's been a year of living in fear for their lives," Biden said.
He made the remarks at Emory University in Atlanta after he and Vice President Kamala Harris met with Asian American community leaders to discuss "ongoing attacks," specifically Tuesday's shootings at three spas. Six of the people killed were women of Asian descent.
Biden called on Congress to pass the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, which would increase Justice Department oversight of hate crimes related to the coronavirus pandemic. It would also provide support to state and local law enforcement agencies.
He denounced anti-Asian rhetoric, such as calling COVID-19 the "China virus."
"We're learning again we've always known, words have consequences. It's the coronavirus, full stop."
Biden offered his condolences to the families of the victims of Tuesday's shootings.
"I know they feel like there's a black hole in their chest ... and that things will never get better," Biden said.
"Our prayers are with you, and I assure you, the one you lost will always be with you. And the day will come when their memory brings a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye, as unbelievable as that is now."
Local and federal investigators were looking into the motivations of gunman Robert Aaron Long, who told police he visited three Atlanta-area spas on Tuesday and shot nine people. Eight died, six of whom were of Asian descent.
On Friday, the Fulton County Medical Examiner's Office released the identities of the four people killed at the two Atlanta spas: Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim and Yong Ae Yue. Police previously identified the victims in the Acworth spa shooting as Daoyou Feng, Paul Andre Michaels, Xiaojie Tan and Delaina Ashley Yaun.
Police have said Long denies the attacks were racially motivated, but federal authorities were looking into the shootings as possible hate crimes.
Over the past year, attacks against Asian Americans have risen dramatically -- officials and experts say as some sort of misguided payback for the coronavirus crisis, which was first identified in Wuhan, China, a year ago.
Stoking the hate has been seen across social media and observers say former President Donald Trump also has played a role. He often refers to the coronavirus as the "China virus" and has even called it the "Kung flu."
A spokesman for the Atlanta-area Cherokee County Sheriff's Office has been removed from his role over a Facebook post he made a year ago that blamed China for COVID-19. The spokesman, Capt. Jay Baker, had spoken to news media several times this week about the attacks. He was also criticized for saying Long went on the shooting spree because he'd been having a "bad day."
One of the three spas targeted in Tuesday's shootings is located in Cherokee County, just north of downtown Atlanta.
"The Asian-American community is feeling enormous pain," Biden added in a tweet. "The recent attacks against the community are un-American. They must stop."
Thursday, Biden issued a presidential proclamation to honor the victims of the Atlanta shootings, which ordered flags to be flown at half-staff at the White House, public buildings and grounds, all military posts and naval stations and on all naval vessels nationwide until sunset on Monday. Flags will also be lowered at all U.S. consular offices worldwide.
Police said Long, 21, has confessed to the shootings and said part of the motivation was related to a sex addiction. Long said he'd frequented such massage parlors in the past and saw the shooting attacks as a way to remove some of the temptation, investigators said.
After returning to the Washington area, Biden will spend the weekend at the presidential retreat at Camp David in Maryland.