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Covid-19 continued its rapid resurgence in rural America last week, with high infection numbers spreading from the lower Midwest and Gulf Coast to envelop the entire South, along with most of the Southwest and Pacific Coast.

The rate of Covid-related deaths also began to climb more rapidly in rural counties last week, responding to the increasing rate of infections that began about six weeks ago.

Two-thirds of the nation’s nonmetropolitan (rural) counties are in the red-zone now, meaning they have infection rates that ought to trigger local governments to enact stricter measures to control the spread of the virus, according to the White House.

New Covid-19 infections in rural counties jumped more than 40% last week, rising to 99,136 from about 70,000 the week before. In the past month, the weekly number of new infections in rural counties has grown sevenfold -- the highest single-month increase in rural America since the start of the pandemic.

Infections in metropolitan counties have grown at roughly the same rate as rural areas during the current surge, which is driven by the more virulent Delta variant of Covid-19 virus.

The one piece of good news in this week's Covid-19 report is that the rate of increase in cases is declining. Three weeks ago, rural infections increased by 62%. Two weeks ago, the increase was about 50%. Last week, the number of new rural infections climbed by 42%. In other words, the virus is still spreading, but not quite as quickly as it has in previous weeks. Nonetheless, the nation could be weeks away from a peak in the current surge.

This week's Daily Yonder analysis of Covid-19 in rural America covers Sunday, August 1, through Saturday, August 7. Data comes from the nonprofit USA Facts. The analysis defines rural as nonmetropolitan counties.

The Map

  • Because of the rising number of cases, the Daily Yonder’s analysis this week reintroduces a category for “very high” infection rates, which we had discontinued this spring when infection rates fell dramatically from the winter surge.
  • These hot-spot counties are shown in black (rural) and gray (metropolitan) on the map. These counties have rates of new infections that exceed 500 cases per 100,000 over a seven-day period. Nearly 250 U.S. counties are in the very-high category (141 rural and 105 metropolitan) – roughly twice the number of counties with this high-infection rate two weeks ago. Black and gray counties are located primarily in Florida, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama, and Missouri.

Red-Zone Counties

  • Roughly two-thirds of the nation’s 1,976 nonmetropolitan (rural) counties were on the red-zone list last week. Red-zone counties have an infection rate of 100 or more new cases per 100,000 residents over a single week. Less than two months ago, only 5% of rural counties were on the red-zone list.
  • Georgia added 23 more rural counties to the red-zone list last week, the biggest increase in the nation. Indiana and Virginia each added 18 counties. Ohio added 16. Kentucky and North Carolina added 15 each. Iowa, adjacent to Missouri, where the Delta-variant surge first established itself, added 14 red-zone counties last week.
  • States farther from the southern Midwest epicenter of the Delta-variant surge are also seeing more red-zone counties. Wisconsin and Washington each added 13 rural red-zone counties last week. California and Minnesota each added 11.

Deaths

  • The number of Covid-related deaths in rural counties climbed from 368 two weeks ago to 633 last week – an increase of nearly 75%. While the number of deaths is growing, it’s still far below the rate of deaths during the winter surge, when 3,000 to 4,000 rural residents were dying each week from Covid-19 complications. An increase in Covid-related deaths generally lags an increase in infections by at least a month. Death trends may also be affected by vaccinations. People who are vaccinated are less likely to become critically ill or die if they do contract Covid-19.
  • As of last week, the proportion of the total rural population that was completely vaccinated was 36.7%. In metropolitan counties, the vaccination rate was 48% of the total population.

State Infection Rates

  • Florida had the worst rural infection rate last week, followed by Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Missouri, and Kentucky. (See chart below for rural and urban infection rates by state.)