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COVID-19 is worst in persistently poor rural counties

Throughout the pandemic, the highest COVID-19 case rates and the lowest vaccination rates in the country have been found in persistently poor rural counties, the USDA said Wednesday in its annual Rural America at a Glance report. Those counties have also had low unemployment rates, suggesting residents continued to work despite the risk of infection by the coronavirus, said the report.

“This situation could be related to industry dependence. For example, a disproportionate share of rural meatpacking-dependent counties also are persistently poor,” said the report from the Economic Research Service. A county is ranked as persistently poor if at least 20% of its residents live at or below the federal poverty line for four consecutive national censuses.

In the first 18 months of the pandemic, persistently poor counties had a cumulative 16,751 weekly COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents, said the report. Urban counties that were not persistently poor had the lowest cumulative rate: 12,929 cases per 100,000 residents.

“By early October, the vaccination rate in urban counties had reached 53%, while the vaccination rate in rural counties was about 42%,” said the USDA report. Vaccination rates for persistently poor counties were the lowest in the nation, at 41.7%. The Daily Yonder said the urban/rural gap was 12 points last week, with 57% of urban Americans vaccinated compared to 45% of rural Americans.

Roughly 5.7 million of the 46 million rural Americans live in persistently poor counties. Those counties have lost nearly 6% of their population since 2010. During the same period, the overall U.S. population grew 7.4%.

The Rural America at a Glance report is available here.

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