Though metro and rural areas have had different infection rates since the outbreak began, the mortality rate from the virus is mostly the same in the U.S. But in recent weeks, the infection rate in rural counties has been outpacing urban counties, according to a new analysis of COVID-19 data by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
According to KFF, counties with large metro areas have had nearly three times as many coronavirus cases and deaths as rural counties (327.5 cases per 100,000 versus 114.9 per 100,000, even adjusting for population size). Metro counties have also experienced nearly four times as many deaths as of last Monday (17 per 100,000 versus 4.4 per 100,000).
Nevertheless, the COVID-19 mortality rate is 4.2% for metro populations, versus 3.8% for rural populations. And the county with the most deaths per capita is in a non-metro area.
The divide between rural and urban America was highlighted during the first several weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S., as major metropolitan areas were hit much harder than their rural counterparts, suggesting lower population density could spare rural America the brunt of the outbreak.
However, this week’s KFF analysis suggests COVID-19 is now spreading in rural America, whose older population and smaller, often sparsely equipped hospitals may be ill-prepared to bear up against the coronavirus. That rural hospitals have been in dire financial straits for years suggests that they may not be able to marshal the resources to properly respond if they become inundated with coronavirus patients.
A recent letter from the Medicaid and CHIP Payment and Access Commission to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar also suggests that hospitals with a high proportion of Medicaid and low-income patients are not getting enough emergency federal funding in response to COVID-19, a trend that could also hurt some rural hospitals.
According to the KFF analysis, there was a 45% uptick in COVID-19 cases in non-metro counties over the past week, versus 26% in metro counties. Over two weeks, cases increased 125% in non-metro counties versus 68% among their urban counterparts. And deaths are up 169% over the past two weeks in non-metro counties, versus a 113% increase in metro counties.
Meanwhile, the easing of lockdowns in states with large rural areas foretells more problems in the near-term. “Georgia has started to reopen certain businesses and allow limited dine-in at restaurants, despite some of its counties rising toward the top of this list of U.S. metro and non-metro counties with the highest numbers of COVID-19 deaths per capita,” the KFF analysis observed.
The county with the most deaths per capita in the U.S. is Randolph County, with 278 deaths per 100,000 people. Randolph is a rural county in Georgia.