Coronavirus-related fatalities across the greater Washington region also have dropped, with significant decreases in the past two weeks.
Neil J. Sehgal, an assistant professor of health policy and management at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, said Tuesday that this is the first week since the start of the pandemic that he is “truly optimistic” about the slowing spread of the virus. He warned, however, that complacency could lead to another wave of cases as government officials scramble to make vaccine doses widespread.
“The reason cases are declining everywhere is because we’re doing what we know works,” he said, citing the increased enforcement of mask-wearing and physical distancing in the region during the recent surge of infections. “We have mitigation efforts that have been in place and are working. Now is not the time to abandon them.”
Maryland has seen a more significant dip in cases than Virginia or D.C., with the state falling to a seven-day average of fewer than 1,000 new infections, matching figures last recorded in early November. In Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, infections have plummeted to less than one-third the peak of the post-holiday surge.
The District reported a seven-day average Tuesday of 121 new cases, the smallest figure in three months. As of Friday, test positivity was 4.4 percent, higher than the city’s cutoff point of 3 percent for moving into Phase 3 of its reopening plan.
In Virginia, case rates have decreased to what they were in early December, rather than November. In the populous Northern Virginia suburbs, some large jurisdictions, including Fairfax County, have had daily infections plateau for the past two weeks instead of decline.
Jeff C. McKay, chairman of Fairfax County’s Board of Supervisors, said cases in Northern Virginia might be declining at a slower pace than its neighbors because there is greater access to coronavirus testing, which can drive up the number of cases.
“I feel good with where we are,” he added. “I’m seeing the trends go in the right direction.”
A larger concern, McKay (D-At Large) said, is the possibility that more vaccinations in the region will fool people into thinking: “I can go out and do whatever I want now.”
“Clearly, we’ve heard from federal officials and others that is still not the case,” he said. “Even after you get vaccinated, you still have to be careful.”
Citing falling case rates, Montgomery officials lifted a ban on indoor dining this past weekend. County head of emergency management Earl Stoddard said in early February that it no longer made sense to remain the only jurisdiction in the region to keep the restriction in place, but he urged residents against dining indoors when possible.
“I know for a fact that indoor dining is a dangerous activity,” he said.
Sehgal, the health policy professor, said elected officials might feel pressured to reopen more businesses as infections fall, which could compromise progress being made to slow transmission. Precautions such as physical distancing are vital now because “hidden in the declining case counts is the U.K. strain, which is more transmissible,” he said.
As of Tuesday, more than 1.75 million residents across D.C., Maryland and Virginia, or about 11 percent of the population, had received first doses of the vaccine. The Biden administration has vowed to provide at least 300 million doses by the end of July — enough to cover every American adult — but questions remain over how effectively those doses will be delivered to communities.
White House officials on Tuesday warned the nation’s governors that severe winter weather could delay vaccine shipments across the country this week. During a conference call, Gen. Gustave F. Perna, the chief operating officer of Operation Warp Speed, offered governors a broad warning that shipments could be slowed from distribution hubs, said Michael Ricci, a spokesman for Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R).
Elected officials in the region also have warned that uncertainty and confusion over the vaccine distribution system has prevented individuals from receiving second doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which are required to achieve the highest levels of immunity.
Virginia on Tuesday launched a statewide registration system for vaccine appointments. The site, which officials described as a “one-stop shop,” centralizes the preregistration waitlists from local health departments across the state, with the exception of Fairfax County, which opted to keep its system in place.
Because of “technological limits” with CVS, state officials said, those who want an appointment with the pharmacy have to register through its website.
Residents who previously preregistered with their local health department should be able to see their names in the new system sometime this week, Virginia officials said. The state is launching a hotline Wednesday for those unable to sign up for appointments online.
Erin Cox and Antonio Olivo contributed to this report.