Despite the rise, caseloads in the capital region are far below those in many other states. Virginia is recording 14 new daily cases per 100,000 residents, a number that drops to 12 in Maryland and 10 in D.C. — about half the national average of 22.
By comparison, the state with the lowest rate is Vermont, at three new cases per 100,000 residents, while new daily infections have surged to 104 per 100,000 in North Dakota and South Dakota — more than 10 times the rate of the nation’s capital.
Health experts said Wednesday that while the Washington region’s number of infections might rise further, they don’t expect large spikes like in other parts of the country — assuming residents continue to follow standard guidelines of wearing a mask, maintaining social distancing and not traveling for nonessential reasons.
Costi Sifri, director of hospital epidemiology at UVA Health in Charlottesville, said “virus fatigue” has started to set in, with some people opting out of precautions they took earlier in the pandemic. Cold weather is another factor, prompting residents to spend more time indoors and in closer proximity, creating an ideal environmental for the virus to spread.
“We are starting to see an uptick in the DMV of cases,” Sifri said. “But we’re fortunate that we’re one of a handful of states — Maryland, D.C. and Virginia — that are not seeing surges.”
He credited the region’s success with the widespread following of health guidelines, which he said were accompanied by less political tension than in other parts of the country.
Sifri said that as Halloween and Thanksgiving approach, actions taken now will help to determine how the virus is spreading as the December holidays and New Year’s get closer. Combating any virus is generally more difficult during the fall and winter months, he said, and the novel coronavirus is no exception.
“If we don’t do things well now, it could lead to a very bad holiday season,” he said.
In Virginia, Sifri said rural parts of the state continue to see a rise in infections, a shift from the more densely populated areas hit early in the pandemic.
Virginia Health Department data shows Northern Virginia saw its average number of new daily cases rise Wednesday to 271 — the highest in that region since mid-June. But much of the state’s rise is coming from increases in rural southwest Virginia, which reported a record 354 average daily cases Wednesday, despite having far fewer people and less access to health care than the Washington suburbs.
Health officials have said contact-tracing data shows much of the spread across the region is originating from small social and family gatherings.
“The virus is like electricity. It finds the path of least resistance,” Sifri said. “If there’s a letdown of behaviors, it’s going to find a way.”
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) on Wednesday warned about the “troubling” spikes in the southwest, saying the state might reluctantly impose tougher restrictions on the region.
“In other states, in other countries, they are reimposing restrictions to get case numbers under better control,” Northam said. “Nobody — nobody — wants to have to do that. But this virus remains a very real threat.”
The seven-day average of cases in Virginia’s southwest has been rising steadily for weeks. The positivity rate for that region’s health district is at 8 percent and rising.
“That’s twice the rate of the rest of the commonwealth, and that quite frankly is troubling,” Northam said.
The governor began a Wednesday news conference by proudly displaying a New York Times graphic that highlighted a handful of states where cases were “low and staying lower.” Virginia made the list, but Northam warned that statewide averages masked the southwest hot spot.
He said local health officials are working with elected and community leaders, including faith leaders, to reinforce the importance of pandemic-related health measures.
“I know that many people are tired of covid-19 restrictions,” he said. “Most people are doing the right thing, and they are tired of seeing other folks disregard the rules and disregard the health and safety of other people.”
According to the state Health Department, 16 people have died of covid-19 at a nursing home in Chesterfield County south of Richmond since late September, while 69 residents and 36 staff members have tested positive for the coronavirus. The outbreak occurred at Tyler’s Retreat at Iron Bridge, owned by the Ohio-based Saber Healthcare Group.
Chesterfield County health officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but a Saber spokesman said in a statement, “We continue to work closely with the Department of Health and follow all local, state and federal reporting guidelines and regulations.”
Elsewhere in the region, D.C.’s seven-day average Wednesday stood at 68 cases, doubling since the start of October but well below numbers recorded in April and May. Maryland is averaging 741 cases, up from 530 on Oct. 1, with upticks in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.
Montgomery County officials on Wednesday continued to sound the alarm on rising infections but stopped short of announcing new restrictions on social or commercial activities.
The number of new daily cases in the county hit 11.9 per 100,000 residents, the highest since mid-June. Test positivity has also risen despite expanded testing, suggesting that transmission rates are on the climb, said county Health Officer Travis Gayles.
The seven-day average of new cases in Montgomery has exceeded 100 for the past four days, up from 60 to 80 in recent months. While cases became more prevalent among young residents over the summer, officials now are seeing test positivity rates increase for people older than 40.
Contact-tracing data suggests the virus is spreading at family gatherings, houses of worship and among employees unable to work remotely from home, officials said.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said state health officials are monitoring increases in hospitalizations and the coronavirus test positivity rate, which has risen to nearly 3.4 percent statewide and is above 5 percent in three jurisdictions.
In the District, Health Director LaQuandra Nesbitt told the D.C. Council on Wednesday that the city is planning to distribute coronavirus vaccines to people working in health care regardless of whether they are city residents.
Nesbitt’s presentation offered the most detailed look yet at the city’s vaccine distribution plan, which all states and jurisdictions had to submit to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by Oct. 16.
“[What] we were very mindful to communicate aggressively to the CDC and other people — anybody whose ear I could bend — is that we want to make sure that they don’t give us an allocation that is based solely on the 702,000 individuals who live in the District of Columbia,” she said, referring to those who work in D.C. but live elsewhere.
City officials also hope to distribute vaccines in the first phase based on work setting rather than profession, which would allow people working in hospitals to receive a vaccine, instead of only doctors and nurses, Nesbitt said.
The plan states that the city will focus on vaccines for populations that have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, including seniors, people with chronic conditions, and racial and ethnic minorities.
Regional health officials also announced on Wednesday a new tool to help local governments share information about coronavirus contact tracing data.
The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments said the platform would help contract tracers reach residents of D.C., Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia who are exposed to the coronavirus across state and city lines.
Officials said the tool, operated by the Silver Spring, Md.-based nonprofit Association of Public Health Laboratories, is the first multistate covid-19 data-exchange platform developed nationwide. APHL is planning to expand the system to other states, officials said.
The greater Washington region Wednesday recorded 2,096 new coronavirus cases and 23 additional deaths. Virginia added 1,345 cases and 16 deaths, Maryland added 684 cases and seven deaths, and D.C. added 67 cases and no deaths.
Justin Wm. Moyer and Patricia Sullivan contributed to this report.