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Rural America & how COVID-19 has affected it


This week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service (ERS) released its “Rural America at a Glance: 2020 Edition” report. Typically this report focuses on economy and the rural population. However, with the onset of the pandemic, this edition of Rural America at a Glance focuses on recent conditions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing economic recession. 

The rural share of COVID-19 cases and deaths increased markedly during the fall of 2020. Rural areas have 14 percent of the population but accounted for 27 percent of COVID-19 deaths during the last 3 weeks of October 2020. Factors likely contributing to this higher rural share include an older population with underlying health issues, living farther away from hospitals, and who are less likely to have health insurance.

The Spread and Severity of COVID-19 Across Urban and Rural Areas

In the early onset of the coronavirus, large metro areas had the highest rate of contraction and highest death rate. However, that all changed during summer and fall periods. Rural communities have been hit the hardest with new infections, while the lowest rates were found in major metro areas. See chart below. 

According to the report when talking about death rates (below), “The third flare-up, ongoing as of this writing, presents an urban-rural geography exactly the opposite of the initial flare-up, being higher the more rural is the type of area across the urban-rural scale. Rural rates of COVID-19 mortality were never previously higher than they were in late October, and the rise in cases during this period suggests that rural mortality is likely to continue increasing. In contrast, rates in large metro areas were the lowest since the beginning of the pandemic, although their recent rise in case rates suggests that this situation may change.” 

The high rate in rural areas can be caused by many factors including age of population, underlying conditions, and lack of rural health resources. Find out more here.

COVID-19 case rates remained much higher in meatpacking counties

In the agriculture industry, we watched in mid-April as reports came out that meat packing plants were dealing with their employees testing positive for coronavirus. The meatpacking-dependent counties began to outpace those seen in all other counties across the country. In fact, Tyson Foods just fired seven of their plant managers for allegedly betting on how many employees would contract the coronavirus. 

“The 2-week moving average number of new daily cases rose in meatpacking-dependent counties through the remainder of April, reaching a peak of nearly 50 cases per 100,000 population by the end of the month, more than 10 times the prevalence seen in other rural counties.” However, the report continued, “Even though cases in meatpacking-dependent counties started to decline in May, they remained significantly higher compared to other rural counties, falling to just under 7 times the number of average daily cases per 100,000 population by the end of May.” 

Since September 15, all rural counties have seen a surge in average new cases per 100,000. The new surge does not appear to be driven by new cases in the meatpacking industry, since it is similar patter to other rural counties for the past four months. 

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