Coronavirus cases hit multiweek lows in D.C. region, but experts fear cold weather could reverse trend

But health experts cautioned that there’s no guarantee the numbers will continue to fall, as chillier October weather begins to usher outdoor activities indoors.

Taison Bell, an assistant professor of medicine specializing in infectious diseases and critical care at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, said the greater Washington region is “in a bit of a steady state” in its number of reported coronavirus cases. The region’s caseload had held steady for several weeks before starting to tick downward about 10 days ago.

He also cautioned that the arrival of cooler weather could increase the spread of the virus as people increasingly decide to congregate indoors.

Neil J. Sehgal, an assistant professor of health policy and management at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, urged residents to consider the pandemic as they make plans for the holidays. They should remember that this is “not the normal holiday season,” he said.

Sehgal said progress in some jurisdictions while battling the virus has started to slow, singling out Prince George’s County, where outbreaks have been reported at the University of Maryland. He said other college towns in the region, including Virginia’s Blacksburg and Charlottesville, also have seen caseloads rise as students go back to school.

“We haven’t controlled transmissions,” Sehgal said. “We’re still riding our first wave of the outbreak. We saw a summer dip, but we never stamped it out. There are still chains of transmission in the community.”

Short of a vaccine, Sehgal said, recent days are probably “as safe as it’s going to be” in terms of a lowered number of cases in the Washington region, also noting the likelihood of increased spread as the weather turns colder.

Still, D.C., Maryland and Virginia have made progress in battling the virus in recent days.

The seven-day rolling average of new cases in Washington’s Northern Virginia suburbs stood at 190 on Wednesday, with the region this week notching its lowest average caseloads since early August. Statewide, the number of new daily cases is the lowest since mid-July.

In D.C., the seven-day average dropped to 39 on Wednesday, the lowest in the city since early July.

Maryland’s seven-day average stood at 490 on Wednesday, up slightly in recent days but about half the number of daily cases as early August. Caseloads have held mostly steady in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in recent weeks.

Montgomery County officials said Wednesday that they are continuing to accumulate supplies in preparation for a possible increase in coronavirus cases this fall or winter.

“We are in a lot better position than we were in the spring,” County Executive Marc Elrich (D) said at a news conference. “We made a decision in the beginning that we would accumulate enough supplies for a second surge.”

Among the supplies are 50 new ventilators that arrived this summer, officials said.

The seven-day rolling average of new cases in the county stood at 83 on Wednesday, with a test positivity rate of 2.6 percent. County health officer Travis Gayles said the number of new daily cases means the county is not ready to move to the third phase of recovery.

“We have a job, and our job is to keep people safe,” he said.

He and Elrich encouraged residents to continue to get tested for the virus, saying it is the best way to get a handle on the pandemic.

“We have tried to open things up as carefully as we can,” Elrich said. “We are trying to keep as much control of this as we possibly can.”

The Montgomery County Council on Thursday will consider a modified executive order from Elrich that would allow restaurants to apply to serve alcohol after 10 p.m. Elrich also said restaurants will be allowed to erect tents without permits, although county employees will ensure that they have been properly installed.

County officials said they planned to release guidance in the coming days for participation in Halloween-related activities. It comes as several jurisdictions in the Washington area have urged residents to take extra precautions on Oct. 31.

Anne Arundel County health officials said Tuesday that they recommend against attending large gatherings, street parties, festivals or haunted houses. Officials also encouraged children to avoid door-to-door trick-or-treating — but if they do, experts recommended wearing face masks and practicing social distancing.

They also recommended that children “not reach into candy bowls or bags,” suggesting that “candy should be given out using a scoop or tongs, so the candy is not directly handled.”

Leaders at Georgetown’s Holy Trinity Catholic Church announced precautions of their own Wednesday, announcing that it will cancel Masses this weekend because of possible coronavirus exposure in the church community. A note on the church’s website said no positive cases have been reported this week during testing but indicated that “members of the community are required to quarantine until early next week.”

While leaders in the D.C. region continue to brace for additional cases, they began to alter financial forecasts this week based on the latest expectations for city and state coffers.

D.C. Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey S. DeWitt presented a revised report Wednesday on the city’s revenue, saying the city ended the fiscal year with $222 million more than he had predicted when he forecast massive losses in April. Still, he cautioned that the city probably wouldn’t return to normalcy until fall 2021 and that the economic fallout will ripple into the coming years, with a projected shortfall of an additional $211 million in the coming fiscal year.

That’s on top of a nearly $800 million shortfall he predicted in April and that the D.C. Council has accommodated in its budget.

In Maryland, David Farkas, acting director of the Board of Revenue Estimates, announced Tuesday that the state will have $1.4 billion more in revenue for the current budget year than predicted in May.

The new revenue forecasts suggest the state will have enough cash to avert deep cuts that had threatened state services and public-sector jobs. But the state’s fiscal leaders cautioned that the pandemic’s course and uncertain prospects for another round of federal aid could decimate their predictions.

D.C., Maryland and Virginia on Wednesday reported 1,195 new infections and 25 additional fatalities. Virginia had 755 new cases and 21 deaths; Maryland had 414 new cases and three deaths; D.C. had 26 new cases and one death.

Virus-related deaths in Virginia have fallen sharply since state health officials reported a record number of fatalities earlier in September that were attributed to a reporting backlog. The rolling average Wednesday of 17 deaths was nearly identical to the state’s average at the beginning of the month.

Michael Brice-Saddler, Erin Cox and Julie Zauzmer contributed to this report.

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