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The rapid spread of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 in rural America abated a bit last week, but for the second week in a row, rural counties broke the record for the largest number of new cases in a seven-day period.

New infections in rural America grew by 36%, with 534,000 new cases being reported. Two weeks ago new rural infections grew by nearly 110%. This week’s lower rate of increase may indicate that rural counties are starting to recover from the Omicron surge.

The number of new infections in metropolitan counties remained flat last week, with only a 2% increase from two weeks ago in new cases.

The metropolitan rate of new infections has been growing since early December, primarily from the Omicron variant. If a similar pattern occurs in rural areas, those counties could have higher rates of new infections for several more weeks.

The exact rate of new infections is clouded by end-of-year holidays and Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which affect state data reporting. The increased availability and popularity of at-home tests, which are not usually reported through public-health channels, could further obscure the picture.

Deaths Climb in Metro, Fall in Rural

  • Covid-related deaths are a more solid reference point for the impact of the pandemic. But deaths are a trailing indicator and can lag new cases by weeks or months.
  • The number of Covid-related deaths fell in rural America last week by about 8%, to 2,090. Metropolitan counties, which began seeing higher new infection rates about six weeks ago, had a 20% increase in deaths, to just over 10,000 for the week.

The Bad and the Better

  • The rural new-infection rate was lower than the metropolitan rate in every state except Wyoming, where the rural rate was just 2% higher than the urban rate.
  • The rate of increase in rural cases was greater than the metropolitan rate of increase in 27 states last week.
  • North Dakota had the larges percentage increase in rural cases (320%). Washington and Wyoming each had more than a 200% increase in new rural infections last week.
  • Maine, which was one of the earliest states to experience the Omicron surge, had a net decrease in new infections last week. Rural new cases were down 18% and metropolitan cases were down 30%.

Red and Black Zones

  • Ninety-nine percent of all U.S. counties were in the red zone last week, meaning they had 100 or more new infections per 100,000 residents in a seven-day period. The White House has recommended that localities in the red zone take additional measures to contain the virus.
  • Nine out of every 10 rural counties were in the black zone, meaning they had even higher rates of new infections -- 500 or more cases for the week per 100,000 in population. All but a handful of metropolitan counties were also in the black zone.

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