COVID-19 cases in Virginia have plateaued after weeks of sustained decline. This comes as the governor eases some pandemic restrictions.    

Vaccinations are picking up speed too, but health experts urge caution as the state tries to ward off another surge.

The average number of reported daily cases in Virginia have risen nearly 8% over the past two weeks, but that’s still down significantly from the state’s mid-January peak. Virginia is recording roughly 1,400 cases each day, compared to more than 5,000 daily infections at the height of the state’s post-holiday spike.        

In the Eastern region, which includes Hampton Roads, average case counts have fallen from more than 1,500 to about 350 per day. 

Hospitalizations and deaths have also declined. There are about a third as many COVID-19 patients in the hospital now as there were in mid-January. This week hostpializations dipped below 1,000 for the first time since October. 

Public health experts are keeping an eye on the data, but they said it’s not clear whether Virginia might experience another serious spike -- like the ones seen in Europe.   

“The whole lesson of the pandemic is that when we give the chance for the virus to spread, that’s exactly what it does,” Dr. Taison Bell, a critical care and infectious disease physician at the University of Virginia. 

Bell says he’s concerned about spring break travel and about the more transmissible variants now circulating in the state. Virginia has documented nearly 150 cases of these variants, according to the CDC, but that number is likely higher because labs only perform genetic sequencing on a fraction of samples.

But at this point, Bell says, “the other wild card” is the vaccines. Roughly 15% of Virginians are fully vaccinated, and a quarter of the population has had at least one dose. It’s a question of whether vaccinations can outrun the variants, Bell says.   

“We’re kind of on this edge, and there’s a chance we might go off the cliff, or a chance we might be saved.”

Demand for vaccines in Virginia still exceeds the supply, but an increasing number of older and medically vulnerable residents -- those most likely to get seriously ill from COVID-19 -- have been vaccinated.

“There is that possibility that we may see cases rising again, but we won’t see that same spike in hospitalizations and deaths,” Bell said. He cautioned metrics are lagging indicators, typically showing up in the data several weeks after a rise in cases, so it’s not yet clear whether this will be the case. 

The uptick in cases comes as Gov. Ralph Northam eases some of the restrictions he implemented late last year in response to the surging case numbers. 

Starting April 1, the limits on social gatherings will rise from 10 to 50 indoors and from 25 to 100 outdoors. That would apply to events like weddings. Capacity limits at entertainment venues and recreational sporting events will also rise. 

“We are not simply throwing the doors open,” Northam said this week. “These are measured changes.”    

Paul Brumund, the chief operating officer at the Norfolk & Virginia Beach health departments, says it is possible to safely ease restrictions, but he stressed that everyone should continue to wear masks and stay outside as much as possible if they are gathering in groups.   

“We’ve been at this for a year,” he said. “We just need to encourage them to continue those behaviors that prevent the transmission of COVID-19.” Norfolk was averaging 46 new cases per day this week, up from 35 on March 9.   

Brumund said the health department is making good progress on vaccinations and should be able to open appointments for people in Phase 1C by mid-April. The Eastern Shore is the only health district in Hampton Roads to enter 1C so far.      

Health officials are also trying to make sure the vaccine vulnerable residents, Brumund says. Some of the major obstacles to vaccine access -- particularly for older residents and low-income communities of color -- include difficulty navigating online registration systems and a lack of transportation or time to visit large vaccination sites.

About 40% of Norfolk’s population is Black, but those residents account for 66% of coronavirus hospitalizations and 30% of vaccinations where the person's race was recorded.  

Brumund says his team is working closely with community leaders, like clergy, to help people get registered. The health department and local pharmacies have also partnered with community leaders to host clinics at churches and schools.  

“We’re going into the neighborhoods in Norfolk, working with groups that have strong connections in the neighborhoods to help us identify [people] and get them into a situation -- if it’s a church or a school -- where we can set up a clinic to get them vaccinated,” he said.

“It takes a bit longer … than having a large clinic where we can push through 1,000, 2,000, 3,000 people a day,” Brumund said. 

“We can do that, but we’re not going to get the most vulnerable populations in the neighborhood.”