Rural areas now account for a disproportionately large share of new infections and deaths.

After a three-week reprieve from rising COVID-19 cases, the number of new infections in rural counties increased last week, climbing by 9 percent. During the same period, new cases in metropolitan counties dropped by 8 percent.

The number of deaths also grew by 9 percent in rural America compared to the previous week, while deaths in metropolitan counties fell by 6 percent.

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The result is that rural counties now account for a disproportionate share of new cases and deaths in the United States. While rural counties have only 14.0 percent of the U.S. population, they accounted for 17.3 percent of new COVID-19 cases for the week ending August 29. During the same period, rural counties produced 18.9 percent of COVID-19 related deaths.

(This story defines rural as nonmetropolitan counties.)

The driver behind rural America’s increased COVID-19 numbers are “red-zone” counties. These counties produced about three quarters of the new rural infections and deaths in the past week, while they contain only about 40 percent of the rural population. 

Red-zone counties are those with at least 100 new cases per 100,000 in population for a seven-day period. The definition comes from the White House Coronavirus Task Force and indicates that the pandemic is out of control in those locations

Chart 1. Percent of New Cases Originating in Rural Counties
In the first week of August, rural counties became responsible for a disproportionate number of new COVID-19 cases, relative to those counties total population. (Credit: Daily Yonder/USA Facts and Census ACS 2019 Population Estimates)

Chart 2. Percent of New Cases by County Type
This chart shows the percentage of new COVID-19 cases originating in each of five county types (Major Metro Core [1 million or more residents in metro], Major Metro Suburb [1 million or more residents in metro], Medium Metro [250,000 to 999,999 residents in metro], Small Metro [50,000 to 249,999 residents in metro], and Nonmetro [not part of a metropolitan area]). Rural (or nonmetropolitan) counties’ share of new cases is represented by the red line. (Credit: Daily Yonder/USA Facts)

This week, 775 nonmetropolitan counties were classified as red zone. That’s an increase of 41 counties from the previous week (which ended August 22). The number of metropolitan counties on the red-zone list declined by nine to 409 counties.

Two-thirds of last week’s rural red-zone counties were holdovers from the previous week. A third (or 248 counties) have been on the red-zone list continuously for more than five weeks.

Other highlights of the previous week’s COVID-19 data include the following:

  • The South, which has been the epicenter of the infection surge that began in June, improved a bit in the most recent report. Twenty-eight counties in the rural South dropped off the red-zone list. Southern states that saw a drop were Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee. 
  • The decline in the South was more than matched by new Midwestern and Great Plains counties joining the red-zone list. Sixty-one new counties joined the red-zone list in Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, North Dakota and South Dakota. 
  • More than half of the rural counties in Illinois and South Dakota are on the red-zone list. Three more Midwest states with high percentages of red-zone counties are Missouri at 46 percent, Indiana at 48 percent, and North Dakota at 49 percent.
  • Twelve states have more than half of their rural counties on the red-zone list. Last week, the rural red-zone counties were home to 40 percent of rural Americans. 
  • Last week, a third of all rural counties saw an increase in new COVID-19 cases. (The interactive map notes whether county infection rates have risen, fallen, or remained the same.)

This report was originally published by the Daily Yonder.