The latest COVID case and death counts in the Philadelphia region could mark a turning point in the pandemic, experts say.

In Pennsylvania and New Jersey, COVID-19 cases are showing signs of declining after steady increases since the end of March. Pennsylvania is averaging about 1,500 people hospitalized a day and 15 daily deaths from COVID. New Jersey is seeing more than 900 people hospitalized daily and 11 deaths.

Several of Philadelphia’s leading health experts see the numbers as a sign of a possible new normal with COVID’s circulation, at least locally.

What exactly to call this stage remains open to debate. Some experts believe we’re at an inflection point in the pandemic — a sudden rise in disease known as an epidemic that is occurring in multiple countries. They are considering whether COVID could be considered an endemic, or a disease whose presence in an area is predictable.

Critically, most hospitals this spring were never in danger of being overrun by people seriously ill with COVID, as seen in prior surges, though case counts are higher now than at this time last year. Case counts are no longer as reliable, given the rise of at-home testing.

» READ MORE: Everyone’s asking when the pandemic will be over. Here’s how we’ll know.

“If the goal is to prevent severe disease, I think we’re doing that,” said Paul Offit, pediatrician and director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, noting how much progress has been made since nationwide shutdowns were imposed in the early days of the pandemic in an effort to control the spread and preserve hospital beds and resources.

“Pandemic 101 is save the health-care system,” he said. “That’s happened. We’ve saved the health-care system.”

This winter’s surge was a turning point that reframed what normal would look like, experts say. Hopes that vaccines would protect people from ever getting sick have faded as the omicron variant proved widely and easily spreadable, even among the vaccinated. Still, their cases were mostly mild cases of COVID.

“I think we realized we’re going to have to deal with this virus circulating around the world for quite some time,” said Jeffrey S. Morris, director of biostatistics at University of Pennsylvania’s department of biostatistics, epidemiology and informatics. “Even if we’re not protected enough to completely prevent infection, we can treat it more like a routine viral infection.”

Vaccinated people are largely staying out of the hospital

At the Geisinger Hospitals’ nine facilities, located in some of the Pennsylvania counties currently reporting high COVID caseloads, hospitalizations increased but have reached a plateau, with 88 people needing inpatient care as of Wednesday, said Gerald Maloney, its chief medical officer for health services. During earlier surges, he said, the hospitalization numbers were more than four times as large.

Almost two-thirds of the people requiring hospitalization have not received any vaccine doses, Maloney said, and among those who have, most have not received a dose of the vaccine in more than six months. He hoped such statistics would encourage people who have not yet gotten booster shots to receive one.

“The vaccines are truly doing their job,” he said.

Fewer than half of all Pennsylvanians who are fully vaccinated have also received a booster shot, state records show.

Americans may need to accept mild cases of COVID as part of the new normal, said Offit, the vaccination expert at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. He estimated that 85% of the American population now has immunity to COVID, either through vaccination, a prior infection, or in many cases both.

The biggest unanswered question, and perhaps the most important in terms of the long-term impact of the virus, Offit said, is how long the protection from vaccination and natural immunity can stave off the risk of serious illness.

“It’s unknowable to the extent that the vaccine has only been out for a year and a half,” he said.

The period of significant government interventions is likely over, health experts said, barring the emergence of a far more serious new variant. But they noted that COVID is still more serious than the common cold, with people ending up in intensive care and dying.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week updated its assessment of the COVID risk in Philadelphia from medium to high. Average daily cases in the city have increased slightly over the past two weeks, according to a COVID dashboard maintained by the New York Times. Hospitalizations increased 27% in the same time period. But on average, deaths are down to fewer than one a day.

Meanwhile, the CDC downgraded COVID’s risk in Chester and Bucks counties from high to medium. Montgomery and Delaware counties are listed in the high risk category, as are Camden, Burlington, and Gloucester counties in New Jersey.

» READ MORE: Will an omicron infection protect against delta and other strains?

People who have weakened immunity and the elderly should still be more cautious, said Thersa Sweet, an epidemiologist at Drexel University, who isn’t yet ready to call the disease’s ebb and flow predictable.

She was among many experts who said COVID will almost certainly settle into a pattern of cold-weather surges, with another likely this winter. It will be essential to maintain surveillance of the virus to determine what variant is circulating, she said, and for health agencies to be prepared to respond quickly.

“There’s no guarantee we aren’t going to see another strain that’s really nasty,” she said.