Rural Officials Should Release Race-Specific COVID-19 Data, Study Says

By: - September 8, 2020 12:00 am

Certified Medical Assistant Shaniya Wood displays a certification card that homeless residents can use to show they are free of the coronavirus to gain access to shelters and other services in McKinley County, New Mexico. McKinley County is among the five rural counties with the highest COVID-19 mortality rates, according to a new study in the Journal of Rural Health. Morgan Lee/The Associated Press

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A new study in The Journal of Rural Health calls on state and county health departments to release more race-specific information on COVID-19 cases to create a fuller picture of the pandemic’s impact on people of color in rural areas. 

The study, published September 7, finds that rural COVID-19 mortality rates are highest in counties with the largest percentages of Black and Hispanic people. Researchers compared county mortality rates and consulted county demographic data but did not calculate race-specific mortality rates.

“We encourage state and county health departments to release COVID-19 testing, infection and mortality data by race/ethnicity so researchers can identify intersections between geographic and racial/ethnic inequities,” the study says.

Many Black and Hispanic people live in the South and Southwest, where rural counties have had a high concentration of COVID-19 deaths.

Poverty and limited access to health care have increased the risk of Black and Hispanic residents dying from the virus. Black people often have underlying health conditions such as diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. Fear of deportation may discourage some Hispanic people from accessing health care. Both groups often work essential jobs that limit their ability to social distance.

COVID-19 mortality is not distributed equally across the rural U.S., and “the COVID-19 race penalty is not restricted to cities,” according to the study.

Of the 20 rural counties with the highest COVID-19 mortality rates, all of them rank in the top quartile of counties with the highest percentages of Black and Hispanic residents, the study said. The five highest rates are in Glenn County, California.; Hancock, Randolph and Early counties in Georgia; and McKinley County, New Mexico.

The study calls for increasing free COVID-19 testing in rural areas with vulnerable populations and partnerships between local governments and community-based organizations to educate, test and trace.

“Ultimately, any policy intervention that aims to prevent or mitigate COVID-19 in rural America must prioritize places with the least resources, the most vulnerable populations and the worst health outcomes,” the study says.

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April Simpson

April Simpson reports on rural issues at Stateline. Before joining Pew, Simpson was associate editor of Current, where she covered public broadcasting and nonprofit media.