COVID-19 Infection Rates In D.C. Region Begin To Drop After Post-Holiday Surge Case counts remain higher than at other points during the pandemic, but show a promising decline from the record-breaking spikes in January.
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COVID-19 Infection Rates In D.C. Region Begin To Drop After Post-Holiday Surge

Case counts have plummeted in the D.C. region since hitting record-breaking levels earlier this year. Nurse Together/Wikimedia Commons hide caption

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Nurse Together/Wikimedia Commons

Weeks away from the one-year mark of the pandemic, coronavirus metrics in the D.C.-area are slowly improving— in some cases trickling back down to numbers not seen since last fall.

Following January's record-breaking case counts, infection rates and hospitalizations from the virus continue to drop consistently in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. On Monday, D.C.'s average rate of daily cases per 100,000 residents dipped below 15 for the first time since November — putting the city back into the range of "moderate" community spread. Likewise, Maryland's rolling average of daily cases has decreased to 752, a number not recorded since late October. And in the past seven days, new infections in Virginia dropped by 34%, according to the Washington Post's regional tracker.

Experts attribute the sharp declines reported across the U.S. to a myriad of factors — no holiday travel, better mask-wearing and social distancing acceptance, and some level of population immunity (not herd immunity).

Still, despite their gradual decline, the D.C. region's case counts remain higher than those recorded at other points of the pandemic, and the identification of new coronavirus variants has D.C. area leaders urging continued vigilance while holding off any additional reopening measures.

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"None of us want to let ourselves think we're out of this," D.C Mayor Muriel Bowser said during a press conference on Monday.

As of Monday, D.C. recorded an average daily new case count of 108 — a more than 50% decrease from the average recorded during the post-holiday surge in January. The District reported a positivity rate, which measures the average number of positive cases out of total tests administered, of 5.2% as of Feb. 18, but that metric had dropped below 5% earlier this month.

The city's average daily case rate per 100,000 people reached 14.94 on Monday for the first time since Nov. 9, ending D.C.'s months-long position in the "substantial" community spread range and moving it into a period of "moderate" spread. (DC Health considers any rate above 15 "substantial" community spread.) The city fleetingly reached "minimal" community spread, the lowest transmission range, when the average daily case rate declined to 4.54 last July.

With community spread no longer considered substantial, D.C.'s hospitalization capacity remains the only metric in a "red zone," per DC Health parameters. On Monday, the city recorded that an average 10.1% of District hospital beds were occupied by COVID-19 patients. Any utilization above 10% is insufficient by the city's COVID-19 benchmarks, though that metric has also been consistently trending down since mid-January.

Less optimistically, deaths from the virus have plateaued at a level higher than what the city saw during much of summer and fall, when for several months, the city reported one or fewer deaths a day. Now, the city averages anywhere between two and six deaths per day. Since late December, more Washingtonians have been dying daily from the virus, and the city is inching closer to a death toll topping 1,000 residents. As of Feb. 22, 995 residents in D.C. have died from COVID-19.

Maryland has seen trends similar to those in the District, recording an average daily case rate of 12.43 as of Feb. 21. By comparison, a little more than one month ago that metric reached a pandemic record at 53.29 on Jan. 13. The state's positivity rate has also remained below 5% for nearly two weeks and dropped to 3.91% on Monday — the lowest rate since Oct. 31. (During much of September and October, the state had successfully kept that metric below 3%).

Over the weekend, Maryland marked an important milestone when it reported that less than 1,000 patients statewide were hospitalized with the virus. As of Monday, 992 patients were hospitalized with COVID-19 — nearly half of the patients hospitalized during the peak in January.

The populous D.C. suburbs of Prince George's and Montgomery counties — the two jurisdictions with the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the state — have also seen case counts trend in a positive direction recently. The average daily case rate per 100,000 residents in Montgomery County has dropped by nearly 80% in the past month, reaching 10.59 on Monday. In Prince George's County, the daily case rate remains higher than that of the state at 17.78 — but still shows significant improvement from its spike to 58 earlier this year.

Deaths in the state have also started to decline in recent weeks after they began a steady uptick in December. By early January, Maryland's average of daily recorded deaths hovered around 40; that metric has since dropped to 22 as of Monday. (Through much of July, August, and September, the state's daily death counts stayed in the single digits).

In Virginia, the seven-day average of daily new cases has plummeted since the commonwealth recorded its highest ever daily infection counts earlier this year. Exactly one month ago, Virginia was reporting an average of more than 6,000 new cases a day; as of Feb. 22, that metric has dropped just below 2,000. Virginia's positivity rate is now down to 8.3% after it jumped as high as 17% in the first days of 2021. In the Northern Virginia region, once a hotspot in the commonwealth, new infections have also declined, reaching an average of 446 new cases on Monday — the lowest number recorded for the region since mid-November.

Like in D.C. and Maryland, hospitalizations in Virginia have dropped significantly over the past month. Hospitalizations in the state began increasing in early November and set a pandemic record when the state recorded an average of more than 3,000 coronavirus patients in early January. On Jan. 22, 2,969 people were hospitalized with the virus in Virginia. One month later, that number has dropped to 1,537 — a trend in the right direction, but still higher than levels the commonwealth reported in the early fall.

Deaths in Virginia have still remained steadily high in 2021, and on Monday the state reported a 24-hour increase of 155 deaths. Over the past three days, the state has reported more deaths than during any entire week during the pandemic, but a spokesperson for Virginia's health department said the surge was in part a result of back-logged data.

While the declining case counts for the region provide a glimpse of light at the end of the year-long pandemic tunnel, the spread of more transmissible COVID-19 variants has experts concerned about another surge. Cases of the U.K., South African, and Brazilian variants have been identified in D.C. or surrounding areas like Montgomery, Prince George's, and Anne Arundel counties. If the spread of these variants outpaces the rate of vaccination — which has so far been beset by technology snags, supply issues, and inequitable distribution — experts worry that cases could quickly tick up again.

As of Monday, D.C. has administered 92,605 doses of the vaccine, and recently opened eligibility to grocery store employees and other essential workers in the city's next phase of the rollout. Only 7.7% of D.C. residents are vaccinated, but last week D.C. Health Director LaQuandra Nesbitt said the city hopes to have vaccinated 70% of residents ages 65 and over by the end of February.

Maryland has administered 1,087,086 doses of the vaccine, accounting for slightly more than 12% of the state's population, and Virginia has vaccinated 994,077 people as of Feb 22.

This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.

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