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Last week’s Covid-19 data paints a complicated picture of the status of the coronavirus pandemic in rural America.

The number of new infections last week remained steady, but the number of rural counties with worrisome rates of new infections increased.

Also, lack of data from Kansas and questionably low numbers in Alabama mean the national report could paint a slightly rosier-than-reality picture of how rural counties are faring.

The total number of new infections in rural counties last week was 41,520, according to data supplied by USA Facts. That’s a slight increase (2%) from the week before. But it marks an interruption in the rapid decline in new infections that rural America has experienced since the beginning of 2021.

While the number of rural cases remained steady, the number of rural counties in the red zone increased by 10%, from 498 two weeks ago to 546 last week. Red-zone counties have an infection rate of 100 or more new cases per 100,000 residents in a one-week period. National health officials have advised localities to increase containment efforts if their communities are above this threshold. 

The higher incidence of red-zone counties could be an indicator of the virus establishing itself for another surge. This hypothesis is supported by the new-infection numbers being reported in metropolitan areas, which grew by 15% last week (from 332,000 to 387,000 new infections last week compared to two weeks ago).

The number of Covid-related deaths continued to decline nationally last week. Rural counties had fewer than 1,000 deaths for the first time since mid-September. A total of 882 deaths were reported in rural counties last week, a decline of 23% from two weeks ago. Metropolitan deaths declined by 18%, to 5,886 for the week.

This week’s report covers the period of Sunday, March 21, to Saturday, March 27.

  • Michigan remained a trouble-spot last week. The state added 14 rural counties to the red-zone list, bringing the total to 46 out of 57 rural counties, or 80%. Five weeks ago, Michigan had only six rural counties on the red-zone list.
  • After a month of dropping numbers, Texas added 26 rural counties to the red-zone list. While that was the largest raw-number increase in the country last week, the state ranks in the middle of the pack on a percentage basis, with 26% of its 172 rural counties in the red zone.
  • Virginia added 17 rural counties to the red zone, bringing its total to 30 of 53 rural counties, or just over half.
  • Other states with more than half of their rural counties in the red zone were Minnesota (46 of 60), New York (16 of 24), Pennsylvania (19 of 30), and West Virginia (19 of 34).
  • South Carolina, which also had a majority of its rural counties in the red zone, improved slightly last week. The state spent weeks at the top of the rural red-zone list but now has 12 of 20 rural counties on the list.
  • Massachusetts and Connecticut had all their rural counties in the red zone, but that totals only three and one respectively.
  • Test positivity, a measurement of how well testing reflects the actual numbers of infections in a population, remained relatively good in rural counties last week. Michigan had the highest rural test-positivity rate – 9.6%, just a hair under the 10% rate that indicates that testing and actual cases numbers are significantly different.
  • Michigan, Nebraska, and South Dakota all had test positivity rates above 10% in their metropolitan counties, however.
  • The number of counties with very-high infection rates (500 or more new cases per 100,000 in one week) remained steady at 10 last week. In January more than 750 rural counties had infection rates in the very high category.
  • The number of metropolitan counties with very-high infection rates climbed from three two weeks ago to 17 last week.

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