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The rate of new Covid-19 infections in rural America plunged last week, indicating that rural counties have passed the peak of the Omicron surge, a Daily Yonder analysis shows.

Meanwhile, the rural death rate from Covid-19 climbed for the third consecutive week.  

New Infections

The number of new infections in rural America fell by more than 40%, from 640,000 new cases two weeks ago to 378,000 last week.

That’s the biggest single-week drop in cases (both as a percentage and in raw numbers) since the start of the pandemic. But even with the decline, new infections were more numerous last week in rural counties than they were at the previous peak of the pandemic in January 2021.

In metropolitan counties, new cases fell at an even greater rate – declining by 54% for the week.

Deaths

Covid-related deaths in rural counties increased by 13% last week, climbing to 2,895 from 2,567 two weeks ago.

The number of Covid-related deaths in metropolitan counties declined slightly. Metro counties reported 13,208 Covid-related deaths last week, down about 2% from two weeks ago.

Metro vs. Rural Patterns

The Omicron variant struck metropolitan counties about two weeks before case-counts started rising in rural areas. Throughout the surge, metro counties have remained a step ahead of rural areas, both as the variant surged to record-breaking numbers of infections and as the surge broke and cases began to decline.

At the start of the surge in December, all but a handful of states had higher rates of infections in metropolitan areas. On the downside of the surge, that pattern has reversed, and 35 of the 47 states with nonmetropolitan counties have higher rural infection rates than urban ones.

State Reports

Only one state (Alabama) continued to see an increase in new infections. The state had a 30% increase in rural cases last week and a 36% increase in metropolitan cases.

Alabama also had the highest rural infection rate, at nearly 1,900 new cases per 100,000 residents. That means 1.9% of the state’s rural population reported a positive Covid-19 test last week.

Nine other states had rural infection rates of over 1,000 new cases per 100,000. (For a list, see the sortable table at the bottom of this article.)

California had the biggest reduction in new rural cases, dropping by 71% compared to two weeks ago. Vermont saw a decrease of 70% in rural cases.

Four other states saw decreases of more than 60% in rural cases last week. (See the table below).

Red-Zone Counties

All but a handful of rural counties remained in the red zone last week, meaning they had new infection rates of 100 or more new cases per 100,000 residents. The White House coronavirus task force has said that localities over this threshold should take additional measures to contain the virus.

But there was a marked improvement in the number of counties with very high rates of new infections – defined as 500 or more new infections per 100,000. The number of rural counties in this very-high category dropped from 1,865 two weeks ago to 1,358 last week – a decline of 507.

See the map at the top of this article for more information.

Methodology

This report covers Sunday, January 30, through Saturday, February 5, 2022, with the exception of death data for Nebraska and Florida, which covers Saturday, January 29, through Friday, February 4. Data is from USA Facts, except death data for Florida and Nebraska, which is from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Rural is defined as nonmetropolitan counties, 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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