Officials said the latest numbers are a positive sign after weeks of caseload increases that prompted local leaders to restore some economic and social restrictions. Daily caseloads in the region the past two days have been at their lowest levels since mid-July.
William A. Petri, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, said Virginia has made progress with its number of new cases holding steady. The state’s seven-day average stood at 995 on Thursday, down from 1,095 a week earlier.
“We may be leveling off in new case diagnoses each day,” he said, noting the daily caseload has hovered in a tight range since late July.
While cases have fallen, Petri said the seven-day average death toll — a lagging indicator that has more than tripled in 10 days, standing at 23 on Thursday — could continue to rise because of earlier spikes concentrated in Hampton Roads.
He said he is monitoring the state’s reproduction number, which is the average number of infections generated by each infected person. Virginia’s reproduction number is hovering near 1, suggesting the state is “in a steady period where we don’t see exponential rises,” but it’s “not going up and it’s not going down.”
Petri said a rate much lower than 1 is unlikely without a coronavirus vaccine, but the current number shows “everyone is paying attention to the really unsexy things of wearing masks, maintaining social distancing and washing hands.”
In addition to Hampton Roads and Baltimore, another area of concern has been Prince George’s County, said Neil J. Sehgal, assistant professor of health policy and management at the University of Maryland School of Public Health.
The county — which was hard-hit during the regional height of the pandemic — has seen its average caseload more than double since early July, even though numbers are well below their May peak. Baltimore County, Baltimore City and Prince George’s County account for about 57 percent of Maryland’s new cases.
Sehgal said he’s worried that as more people enter public spaces, there will be a continued disproportionate burden of cases among the Washington area’s Black and Latino residents, who are overrepresented in service-industry jobs.
Because D.C. attracts visitors from across the country, he said an increase in mobility could also result in increased case counts in the nation’s capital.
Sehgal said many people are feeling fatigued by restrictions and extended periods of staying home. He urged residents to think about their actions now if they want to travel for the holidays and see students return to school later this year.
“We have let this drag on far longer than any other developed country,” Sehgal said. “We have lacked the political will to combat this.”
Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young (D) also voiced frustration with federal leaders Thursday as he lifted some restrictions that recently were added to combat a rise in infections.
Young signed an executive order to restore indoor dining at limited capacity. The decision comes about two weeks after he suspended dining inside bars and restaurants, making Baltimore City the first Maryland jurisdiction to restrict activities that previously were permitted under reopening plans.
Young said his order, which takes effect at 5 p.m. Friday, was meant to boost the financial well-being of Baltimore residents struggling amid the pandemic. But the mayor said he remains concerned about community spread of the virus and criticized the “deeply disheartening” lack of congressional action to provide more financial relief to the public.
“Their inaction has forced my hand,” he said in a statement. “This reopening does not mean that we are in the clear as it relates to the pandemic but rather that I want to support our residents facing extreme financial hardships as a result of working in the restaurant and service industry.”
Under Young’s order, restaurants can reopen for indoor dining at 25 percent capacity with social distancing measures in place and face coverings when patrons are not eating or drinking. It also limits outdoor gatherings to 25 people, while limiting capacity at indoor gatherings, houses of worship and retail establishments at 25 people or 25 percent, whichever is lower.
The Baltimore region’s rate of infection began to increase in early July but has eased slightly in recent days. In Baltimore City, the seven-day average caseload, which peaked at 185 in late July, stood at 153 on Thursday. Numbers in Baltimore County have followed a similar trend.
The District has also seen a slight decline in infections in recent days, with its daily average at 66 new cases. Montgomery County has seen a similar downward tick in cases, while that metric has changed little in Northern Virginia since mid-June.
As caseloads plateau across the region, officials said there were other signs of encouragement.
Maryland on Thursday reported a record low of 4.03 percent in its seven-day positivity test rate. Gov. Larry Hogan (R) urged residents to continue wearing masks and to practice social distancing.
“While we are encouraged by the decline and plateau of key metrics in recent days, this crisis is by no means behind us,” he tweeted.
The number of coronavirus cases in Maryland, Virginia and the District stood at 201,390 on Thursday as the death toll in the greater Washington region reached 6,437. The three jurisdictions reported 40 new deaths and 1,472 new cases.
D.C. reported 75 new cases and no deaths, Virginia reported 818 cases and 25 deaths, while Maryland reported 579 cases and 15 deaths.
The pandemic continued to take a toll on personal finances and the economy, with 37,842 people filing new unemployment claims in Maryland, D.C. and Virginia for the week ending Aug. 1. That’s down from 58,736 claims the week before.
District residents filed 2,090 new claims, Marylanders filed 9,762 and Virginians filed 25,990.
Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.