Counties that have meatpacking plants or prisons are major hotspots for new coronavirus infections in rural America.
Meanwhile, counties where farming or mining undergird the economy have the lowest rates of infection.
The Daily Yonder looked at new Covid-19 cases over the past month to see if there are economic patterns in the distribution of the cases. The answer is a clear yes.
To do the analysis, we used county economic categories devised by the USDA Economic Research Service. The system identifies the major industry type that drives the local economy in each county.
We found that more than a third of the new coronavirus cases emerging in rural America in the last week originated in counties where manufacturing is the predominant economic driver. Meatpacking is a food manufacturing process, so counties with large amounts of pork, chicken, and beef processing show up in the manufacturing category.
The relationship between meatpacking and Covid-19 becomes clearer when you look at the list of manufacturing counties with the highest cumulative number of coronavirus infections. Five out of the top six counties on that list are meatpacking Meccas. Some examples:
- Cass County, Indiana, had just over 1,100 coronavirus cases as of April 28, according to data from USA Facts. Cass County is home to a Tyson packing plant. With a population of only 38,000, that gives Cass County an infection rate more than 10 times the national rate.
- Ford County, Kansas, with over 500 cases, has Cargill and National Beef plants. The infection rate there is more than seven times higher than the national rate.
- Nobles County, Minnesota, and Marshall County, Iowa, both with more than 400 cases each, have JBS meatpacking facilities. Those counties’ infection rates are seven and fives times higher than the rate, respectively.
Prisons are another of the big drivers of rural coronavirus infections. Rural counties with large prisons generally get categorized in the government county-economic type. These are counties where state or federal governments provide a substantial part of employment and payroll.
- In Bledsoe County, Tennessee, where a state prison is a major employer, infections at the prison have pushed the county’s infections to nearly 600. With a population of just 15,000, the county an infection rate 13 times the national figure and more than twice the infection rate of New York City, the hardest hit city in the U.S.
- Infections at the federal prison in Sumter County, Georgia, are part of the county’s 340 infections. The infection rate in the county is three times the national figure.
- Marion County, Ohio, with a population of 65,000 has nearly 2,200 cases, giving it an infection rate 11 times higher than the nation’s.
Counties with strong recreation economies were a big part of rural infections at the start of the pandemic. Ski resorts in the West in places like Blaine County, Idaho, and Eagle County, Colorado, were early hotspots in the pandemic. But the share of cases coming from counties with recreation economies has dropped since late March.
Mining and farming counties have the lowest infection rates in rural America. They’ve consistently ranked at the bottom of the scale throughout the pandemic.