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COVID-19 cases in meatpacking counties were 10 times those in other rural counties

Some 3,818 people died of COVID-19 in rural counties last week, the sixth straight week with a record death toll.

During the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, rural meatpacking counties had infection rates 10 times higher than rates in other rural counties, said the USDA on Thursday. And despite improvements, the COVID-19 rate in the 49 U.S. counties that rely on meat plants for jobs remains somewhat higher than in the rest of rural America as the disease surges again.

In its annual Rural America at a Glance report, the USDA also said that rural residents, who make up 14% of the U.S. population, accounted for 27% of the COVID-19 deaths nationwide during the final three weeks of October. The report covered the pandemic and the accompanying recession from mid-March through Nov. 1.

Some 3,818 people died of COVID-19 in rural counties last week, the sixth straight week with a record death toll, said the Daily Yonder. The rural death rate from the virus has exceeded the urban rate since early August.

Roughly 100,000 people are employed by meatpackers in the 49 rural counties where the industry provides more than 20% of the jobs.

“Beginning in mid-April, the confirmed number of cases of COVID-19 in meatpacking-dependent counties began to outpace those seen in all other counties across the nation,” said the USDA. The two-week moving average of daily new cases peaked at nearly 50 per 100,000 people by the end of April, “more than 10 times the prevalence seen in other rural counties,” said the report. By the end of May, the rate in meatpacking counties had declined to seven times the rate of other rural counties.

“Partial plant closures and increased social distancing protocols were implemented at meatpacking plants across the country starting in late May. These measures appear to have slowed infection rates, as June saw a sharp reduction in cases in meatpacking-dependent counties,” said the USDA. “After mid-July, case rates moved in tandem in meatpacking counties and counties without the plants, although rates remained higher in counties with meat plants.”

Like the rest of the country, jobless rates in rural areas skyrocketed, reaching 12.6% earlier this year as the pandemic spread and the U.S. economy slowed. The rural unemployment rate had improved to 6% by the fall.

One-half of rural Westerners surveyed during the summer reported that the pandemic had had an adverse effect on their lives, most commonly on their mental health and household finances, said a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The portion of people reporting an adverse impact from the pandemic was nearly twice the portion who said they had had direct experience with the coronavirus. That group included the 2% who said they suspected or confirmed a personal infection; the 8.5% who said a family member had contracted the virus; and the 19% who said a friend or acquaintance had had a suspected or confirmed case.

“Rural people have been left out of the vast majority of research on the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said the six scientists who wrote the PNAS report. They surveyed 1,009 rural residents of 11 Western states during June and July, when infection rates were on the rise. “Findings show there have been significant impacts on health-related and economic dimensions of well-being, and that these impacts are shared across sex, age, ethnicity, and education.”

Although nearly 60% of respondents said their county was in poor economic health at present, nearly half said they expected good economic health a year from now.

A FERN story from May about high COVID-19 rates in meatpacking counties is available here.

“Rural America at a Glance” is available here.

The PNAS paper, “Impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on rural America,” is available here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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