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It’s likely that there are other factors at work in Iowa’s higher death toll, too….

It’s likely that there are other factors at work in Iowa’s higher death toll, too. The pandemic affects every region, state and community in ways unique to that area, Lawler said.

Population density could be one such factor.

Iowa’s population per square mile is double Nebraska’s, largely because of wide swaths of sparse ranchland in western Nebraska. Some 15% of Nebraska’s population lives within counties of 10,000 people or fewer, while only 6% of Iowa’s population lives within such low-population counties. Those counties do tend to have some of the lowest virus rates.

But now, more than seven months into the pandemic, Lawler thinks that density is no longer the predictor it once was for virus spread. The virus has now had time to find its way almost everywhere. And even people in small towns interact with one another, he said— often without taking precautions like wearing masks.

The fact that both Iowa and Nebraska rank in the top third of states in per capita virus rate despite ranking in the bottom third in density also supports the idea that lower density doesn’t mean less virus.

The latest case figures also cast much doubt on density: The eight states that as of Sunday had the biggest week-over-week increases in virus cases include some of the nation’s least dense states. In order, they include Montana (ranked 48th in population per square mile), Wyoming (49th), Wisconsin (26th), North Dakota (47th), South Dakota (46th), Alaska (50th), Utah (40th) and Nebraska (43rd). Iowa, which has the 36th-highest density, posted the 16th-highest week-overweek growth.