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After six straight weeks of rapid decreases, the number of new cases of Covid-19 in rural counties fell by only 1% last week.

In contrast, rural cases dropped by about 30% each of the preceding two weeks.

The plateau in improvement, along with a slight increase in new cases in metropolitan counties, raises questions about whether the pandemic’s late-winter improvements are going to continue.

One unknown, however, is how extreme winter weather in the south-central U.S. over the past two weeks could have skewed data reporting.

Another concerning note from last week’s data is that the number of counties on the red-zone list in both rural and urban areas rose slightly last week after seven straight weeks of decline. But Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas, which were affected by the storm two weeks ago, were three of the states with the largest increase in red-zone counties.

The red zone is defined as having 100 or more new infections of Covid-19 per 100,000 residents in one-week. That threshold has been used as an indication of whether local governments can soften pandemic restrictions.

The number of Covid-related deaths in rural counties dropped by 15% last week to its lowest level since the second week of November. Changes in Covid-19 death rates generally lag changes in infection rates by several weeks, due to the time it takes infections to run their course.

This weeks Daily Yonder Covid-19 report covers the period Sunday, February 21, through Saturday, February 27. Data comes from USA Facts.

  • The number of new infections in rural counties last week was 55,498, which is a drop of 801 cases from the previous week’s total. This was smallest decline in new infections since the infection rate began to decline seven weeks ago.
  • From mid-January through two weeks ago, new infections in rural counties declined by an average of 20% a week, compared to last week’s decline of 1%.
  • The number of new infections in metropolitan counties rose slightly last week, after dropping an average of 18% a week in the previous six weeks. There were 409,621 new infections reported in metropolitan counties last week, up from about 406,000 the previous week.
  • The weekly infection rate was slightly higher in metropolitan counties than in rural ones – 145 vs. 121 per 100,000 residents. The metropolitan infection rate has been higher than the rural rate since the first week of January.
  • A total of 2,041 deaths from Covid-19 were reported in rural counties last week, a drop of 363 from the week before.
  • Deaths in metropolitan counties increased by 4%, with a total of 12,350 reported last week.
  • Rural and urban counties had identical rates of death from Covid-19 last week – 4.4 new deaths per 100,000 residents. Previously, the rural death rate had been higher than the urban death rate since the first of August.
  • Even as cases fell slightly, the number of rural counties that had more than 100 new cases per 100,000 residents climbed to 907 last week, an increase of 25 counties. About 46% of the nation’s 1,976 rural counties are in this “red-zone” category. Over the long haul, changes in the number of these red-zone counties are an indication of the relative virulence of the pandemic.
  • In South Carolina, all 20 nonmetropolitan counties and all but one of 26 metropolitan counties were on the red-zone list.
  • The bulk of new red-zone counties occurred in states that were affected by severe winter weather two weeks ago, an indication that the growth in red-zone counties could be related to data-reporting anomalies. Texas added 21 rural counties to the red-zone list last week, with most of the additions occurring in the border region. Arkansas added 20 rural counties to the list. Louisiana added 12. Nebraska and Michigan each added eight rural counties to the red-zone list.
  • States that had fewer rural red-zone counties last week included Pennsylvania (a decline of nine rural counties), Tennessee (down seven counties), Oklahoma (down seven), Montana (down five), and Indiana (down five).
  • Metropolitan red-zone counties grew by six to 749, which represented roughly two-thirds of the 1,976 metropolitan U.S. counties.
  • Counties in the very-high category (defined as more than 500 new cases per 100,000 in a single week) represented less than 1% of U.S. counties. In late November, nearly half of all rural counties were in this very-high category.
  • Covid-19 has been spreading in rural America for one year. On February 21, 2020, Humboldt County in Northern California was the first rural county to report a case of Covid-19, according to USA Facts.