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Rural America passed an unwelcome milestone this week.

Since August, rural counties have been adding Covid-19 cases at a faster rate than metropolitan counties. Now, the rural rate of new infections is higher than the metropolitan rate has ever been.

Another way to say this is that rural counties are the front edge of the global pandemic. Rural America leads the nation in the rate of new infections. The U.S. leads the world in the number of Covid-19 infections and ranks in the top 12 globally for our cumulative infection rate. If the pandemic were a battle, rural America would be on the skirmish line.

Reading the Graph

The Daily Yonder graph at the top of this article tells the story. It shows the daily rate of new infections for nonmetropolitan (rural) and metropolitan counties. The rates are based on a seven-day average of new cases. The blue line shows the metro new-infection rate, and the red line shows the nonmetropolitan rate.

The pandemic’s first two waves are clearly visible in the graph. The first wave, primarily occurring in urban areas, peaked in early April. The second wave, which included both urban and rural counties, peaked in mid-July for urban areas and shortly thereafter for rural counties.

In the cooling-down period after the July peak, both urban and rural areas saw a decline in new infections.

Things changed in the second half of August. The rural rate began to climb again while the urban rate continued to fall. After a downward blip in mid-September, the rural rate returned to climbing. The metropolitan rate also started to climb in October, but the growth was slower than in rural areas.

On Sunday, October 11, the rate of new infections in rural areas hit 21.9 per 100,000, surpassing the metropolitan peak of 21.3 set in July.

Implications

Rural America is currently in the passing lane in a race no one wants to win. How long will it remain there?

The first wave of the pandemic saw a surge in cases for about three weeks and peaked at a new-infection rate of about 10 cases per day per 100,000. The second wave surged for more than a month and peaked twice as high at 20.6 cases per day per 100,000.

It’s hard to say where we are in the most recent surge. But we do know that for the time being, at least, rural America is leading the way.

More information on infection rates in rural and metropolitan counties is available at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC’s Covid data tracker shows the rate of new infections based on the urban/rural classification system developed by the National Center of Health Statistics.

Interactive Graph from the CDC