Consider Blaine County, Idaho, population 23,000. It has 410 cases of coronavirus, a function of its being a tourist destination in the state. The density of confirmed cases there is nearly half of New York’s: 178 cases per 10,000 residents. Summit County, Utah, has a lower density of cases, but like Blaine County, heavy tourist traffic probably powered the outbreak.
Dougherty County in the southwestern corner of Georgia is another hotspot. It has 686 confirmed cases among its 88,000 residents, a rate of 78 cases per 10,000. It sits at the center of a cluster of counties with higher-than-average densities of infections, apparently because an attendee at a February funeral was carrying the virus.
Some clusters, like those around New York and New Orleans, are a function of lots of cases spreading in large, dense populations. Others are a function of circumstance, one infected visitor stumbling into a geographically small cluster of people.
The result is that small encounters can have an outsized effect on the density of cases in certain areas. One or two cases can spike the density of cases in low-population counties, but it’s still interesting that the most densely affected counties are fairly evenly distributed by population. Fourteen counties that are among the least populous in the country have the highest per capita number of coronavirus infections. (Among the 14 counties, there are 49 cases.)
One of those counties is Oldham County, Tex. It has only two confirmed cases but a population of 2,112. One of those infected with the virus in Oldham County eventually died — giving the county one of the highest per capita death tolls in the country.
In Toole County, Mont., three people have died of the virus out of a population of 4,736, giving the county a rate of 6.3 deaths for every 10,000 people — one of the highest rates in the country. To some extent, this is a function of circumstance and bad luck, but it’s also a reminder that the toll can be relatively large even in a small place.
Franklin County, Ind., has seen six deaths from the virus in its population of nearly 23,000, giving it a relatively high mortality rate as well. Again, though, those clusters near New York, New Orleans and in southwest Georgia stand out.
It’s worth considering this toll in the context of the White House’s insistences that the virus’s effects are modest outside hotspot areas. New York City is the epicenter of the outbreak and flooded with cases and deaths straining its resources.
But it doesn’t take much to spur a large outbreak in a small area — which, of course, is why experts have advocated for the existing social distancing measures. It’s a reminder that lifting or ignoring those measures raises the risk of new outbreaks in unexpected places.