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New Covid-19 infections dropped for the fifth consecutive week in rural America last week, reaching their lowest level since mid-November.

New cases of Covid-19 in rural counties numbered about 120,000, a reduction of 16% from two weeks ago. Since the record-breaking peak of the Omicron variant in the third week of January 2022, infections in rural America have fallen by more than 80%.

Infections in metropolitan counties have dropped even more rapidly. New metro cases fell by a third last week and have declined over 90% since their peak in mid-January.

Although overall infection rates are coming down, metropolitan counties’ faster progress means that the current rural infection rate is twice that of metropolitan areas – 131 vs 262 new cases per 100,000 in rural and metropolitan counties respectively.

A similar disparity has become more pronounced in recent weeks in the death rates of rural and metropolitan counties. Both rural and metro counties had a decline in their Covid-related death rates last week. But the metro rate improved by 21% while the rural rate improved by about 5%. Metro America’s faster improvement means that the Covid-related death rate is now about 80% higher in rural areas than in metropolitan ones.

The higher rural death rate is a long-term trend. Over the past 20 months, the rural death rate has been higher than the metro rate for all but five weeks. Rural (nonmetropolitan) counties represent only 14% of the U.S. population but account for about 23% of the nation’s Covid-related deaths.

Red Zone Improvement

  • The number of rural counties in the “red zone” dropped significantly last week. Red-zone counties (shown in red on the map at the top of this page) had more than 100 new cases per 100,000 residents in a seven-day period. Rural red-zone counties fell by 461 last week, by far the biggest drop since the peak of the Omicron surge. The number of metro counties in the red zone also fell, but more than 80% of both rural and metro counties are still in the red zone.
  • Bigger evidence of improvement shows in the number of rural counties with very high infection rates (500 or more per 100,000 for the week). Rural counties with very high rates (shown in black) have dropped from a high of 95% of all rural counties the week of January 22 to just 10% last week. Just 5% of metropolitan counties had rates of 500 or more new cases per 100,000 for the week.

Regional Variation

  • Utah had the best rural infection rate last week, at 52 new cases per 100,000 rural residents. Nebraska was second with a rate of 56 per 100,000. California, Georgia, and Connecticut rounded out the best five states for rural infections. (See the sortable list of states and rates at the bottom of this article.)
  • Maine had the worst rural infection rate last week, at just over 1,000 new cases per 100,000 residents. Maine news outlets report that the high rate is because of a backlog in test processing. But this is the second week the state has had the worst official rural rate.
  • Alaska, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Idaho all had new rural infection rates of over 400 cases per 100,000 residents.
  • All but three states improved their rural infection rates last week. Maryland saw the biggest improvement – a reduction of 81%. The state’s small nonmetropolitan population, however, means that smaller changes in case numbers can have an outsized impact on percentage change from week to week.
  • Utah and Connecticut, also states with relatively small numbers of nonmetropolitan residents, saw rural infections drop by 75% and 68% respectively. New rural cases in Colorado, with a more sizeable rural population, fell by 64%. Mississippi, where more than half of the state’s 2.9 million residents live in nonmetropolitan counties, had a 58% decrease.
  • States where the rural infection rate worsened were Wyoming (71% increase in rural infections), South Dakota (44% increase) and Alaska (20%).

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