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County health ranking slides to 73rd among state’s 100 counties

By Carl Blankenship
carl.blankenship@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY – Rowan County is just shy of the bottom 25th percentile in the state in terms of health, according to an annual report released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The report ranks every county in the country against those within their states.

Alyssa Harris, executive director of Healthy Rowan, said healthy behaviors have been the main focus of the organization. Harris pointed out the data used in the report is two to four years told by the time it is completed, so it is not a completely up-to-date measurement of health.

Still, the county had a significantly higher rate of drug overdose deaths than the state as a whole and significantly lower access to primary care, dentists and a higher rate of preventable hospital stays. The county also has higher rates of homicides, suicides, firearm fatalities, violent crime and injury deaths. Quality of life decreased from 28th in the state to 69th, clinical care decreased from rank 48 to 64.

The figures, because of their age, are not affected by COVID-19, though Rowan County has a higher infection rate than most in the state. Harris said behavior is the primary factor leading to more infections.

“The impacts can be seen immediately because we’re seeing that our folks are not recovering as quickly as other counties,” Harris said.

Harris said a disease like COVID-19 will hit communities with poor health harder than counties like neighboring Cabarrus, which was ranked ninth in the state. If the community wants to withstand other disease in the future, the baseline needs to get healthier.

We’ve got these serious issues we need to start addressing,” Harris said.

Poor health outcomes are often the result of lack of preventative care. Poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking and lack of primary care can lead to disease and comorbidities, which significantly increase risk of serious illness due to COVID-19.

“There are lots of other communities that are also designated retired communities that have a (better) county health ranking than we do,” Harris said.

Harris said the county has to push residents to adhere to healthier lifestyles, and it needs community buy in to take what the health department and Healthy Rowan says and put it into action.

The county had an above-average rate of premature deaths, average poor or fair health and slightly above average numbers of poor physical and mental health days in a month. Life expectancy was 2.8 years lower than the state average and adult obesity was 7% higher, at 38%. Though, the county ranked above the state average in food environment and access to exercise opportunities.

Despite the marked worsening, the county did improve in some areas. Length of life improved from rank 77th to 73rd in the state, health factors improved from 64 to 61, physical environment improved from 85 to 63 and health behaviors improved from 63 to 55.

Rowan also had lower rates of excessive drinking and alcohol-impaired driving deaths, though both of those figures fall in the margin of error to the state.

Harris said moving more, eating healthier and recognizing portion sizes have gotten bigger helps a healthier lifestyle fall into place. Stress can impact sleep and then result in poorer diet choices in the morning. Lack of planning around schedules can lead people to more unhealthy fast food rather than prepared meals.

“It’s all this domino effect,” Harris said.

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