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The infection rate in rural counties remains significantly lower than the nation’s overall infection rate. But rural hotspots, plus a gradual increase across most nonmetropolitan counties, is making rural infections a greater share of the nation’s caseload.
The chart at the top of this article tells that story. It looks at new cases of Covid-19 from March 29 to April 27, approximately a month’s worth of data. The chart shows the percent of new coronavirus infections that come from each county type.
The numbers show small metros and rural areas (nonmetro counties) are producing an increasingly greater proportion of the nation’s new infections.
(Before we get to the analysis, a caveat. To help us understand what’s happening across the country, we’ve omitted the New York City metropolitan area from this analysis. That’s because the New York metro cases are such a large part of the nation’s caseload [more than a third], they obscure the trends occurring in other parts of the country. So the graph tells the story of America’s new cases outside the New York metro area.)
Look on the left side of the graph to find core counties of major metropolitan areas (those with a population of 1 million or more – again, except New York City metro, in this case). Counties in this category are producing a decreasing proportion of the nation’s caseload. On March 29 (the blue bar), cases in core counties of major metros accounted for 41% of the nation’s new Covid-19 cases. On April 27 (green bar), only 31.2% of the nation’s new infections were coming from core counties in major metros.
The trend is bumpier for the next two groupings of county types: major metro suburbs and medium-size metros (those with 250,000 to under 1 million residents). But the story is similar. The suburbs of major metros and counties in medium-sized metros became a larger share of the nation’s new Covid-19 cases from March 29 to April 13 (red bar). But by the end of the period on April 27 (green bars), those types of counties both decreased their share of the nation’s new cases (to 30.0% and 18.6% respectively).
In the last two categories of counties, a stronger trend emerges. And it’s here that we see how the pandemic is playing out in small metropolitan areas (under 250,000 residents) and rural counties.
Small metros accounted for 9.8% of the nation’s new cases on April 27. That’s up from 5.6% on March 29.
The trend is also there for nonmetropolitan counties, which are all the way to the right side of the graph. The percentage of the nation’s new cases coming from rural (nonmetropolitan) counties more than doubled in the last month, from 4.8% on March 29 to 10.5% on April 27.
Rural counties still account for a disproportionately small number of Covid-19 cases. Nonmetropolitan counties contain about 15% of the U.S. population but are only generating 10.5% of the new cases. That’s good news for rural America overall. But there are some types of rural counties that face tremendous challenges with Covid-19. We’ll take a look at some of those cases in our next story.