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New cases of Covid-19 continued to climb in rural America last week, while the rate of new infections in metropolitan counties fell, according to a Daily Yonder analysis.

The result is that Covid-19 is now spreading in rural counties faster than in metropolitan areas for the first time since the start of the Omicron surge in mid-December.

New infections in rural areas grew by more than 20%, to a record-setting 654,000 in one week. In metropolitan counties, new infections dropped by about 8%, to just under 4 million for the week.

Deaths from Covid-19 remained relatively stable in rural counties last week, climbing just 2%, to 2,136. Deaths in metropolitan counties increased nearly 20%, to 11,970.

The rural death rate remained slightly higher than the urban death rate, but the gap has narrowed during the Omicron surge. The rural rate was about two times that of metropolitan areas before December. Currently the rural death rate is just 9% higher than the metropolitan rate.

As of January 22, 150,680 rural Americans had died from Covid-19. In metropolitan counties, 674,767 people have died, according to a Daily Yonder analysis of data from USA Facts.

The Omicron Surge

The Omicron surge hit metropolitan counties about two weeks before the variant began to affect the rural infection rate. If that pattern continues, rural counties should be approaching the peak of the Omicron surge.

Last week, the rural infection rate was higher than the metropolitan rate in 18 states. At the onset of the Omicron surge in December, the metropolitan infection rate was higher in all but a handful of states. In addition, the rural rate was accelerating at a faster pace than the metropolitan rate in 39 states.

Unlike the Delta surge, which started in the Midwest and created distinct regional surges over the course of months, the Omicron surge is everywhere at once. Alabama had the highest rural new-infection rate last week. Of the five states with the highest rate of new rural infections, only one other state was in the South (South Carolina). The rest were in the Midwest (Kansas), the Pacific (Hawaii), and the Southwest (Arizona).

The only regional variation in this national pattern is New England, which was hit early by Omicron and is now recovering. Maine, which led the nation in rural infection just weeks ago, now has the lowest rate of new rural infections in the nation. Vermont is second lowest. Connecticut is fifth.

This Week's Map

All but a handful of counties on this week’s map are black and gray. This denotes counties where the new infection rate is 500 or more cases per 100,000 residents for the week. Rural counties with these high rates are shown in black. Metro counties are in gray.

Maine is prominent for its lack of “black zone” counties.

Utah has a number of counties that are green, meaning they have new infection rates below 100 cases per 100,000.

Texas’ numerous green counties are the result of adjustments in record-keeping from week to week and are unlikely to represent significantly better infection rates on the ground.

Methodology

This report covers Sunday, January 16, through Saturday, January 22, 2022, with the exception of death data for Nebraska and Florida, which covers Monday, January 17, through Sunday, January 23, 2022. Data is from USA Facts, except death data for Nebraska and Florida, which do not report deaths through USA Facts. For these states, the source of death data is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Rural is defined as nonmetropolitan, using the Office of Management and Budget’s list of Metropolitan Statistical Areas from 2013. We use rural-nonmetropolitan and urban-metropolitan synonymously.

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