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Rowan County improves in health rankings, looks to keep climbing in the future

SALISBURY — The health of Rowan County residents and the community are on the rise, according to a recently released report from the University of Wisconsin’s Population Health Institute.

Compared to the state’s other 99 counties, Rowan ranked 60th in health outcomes and 51st in health factors in 2021, ascending several spots from 73rd and 61st in the 2020 rankings. In the 2019 rankings, Rowan County was 59th in health outcomes and 64 in health factors.

“I’m really proud of our county for improving in the rankings,” said Alyssa Harris, interim health director.

The rankings aren’t perfect, Harris said, but they are a good measuring stick for how Rowan County stacks up to others across the state and country. The data included in the rankings will also be a useful tool when the department is applying for grants in the future.

The health outcome ranking reflects the current overall healthiness of a county, and takes into account the length and quality of life of residents. The health factor ranking focuses more on the current behaviors of residents and is a good measuring stick to determine how healthy a community will be in the future.

Rowan County’s rankings, Harris said, are the result of a variety of factors — both obvious and underlying. Everything from how much a person exercises each day to whether they have access to broadband internet connection at home is considered in the algorithm.

“Health really is a combination of the choices we make, but it’s also the jobs we have, the economic opportunity we have, our physical environment, having access to healthcare, not just the quality of that healthcare,” Harris said. “It really looks at the picture of where we are in Rowan County.”

To compile the rankings, researchers analyzed data from past years. To calculate some metrics, they considered data going back to 2013. Harris said Rowan County’s improvement in the 2021 rankings is likely the outcome of initiatives put in place years ago.

“I think what you’re seeing now, because this data is a few years removed, is work that’s been going on for years and years finally coming to fruition,” Harris said.

Harris pointed to programs like Healthy Rowan, Women, Infants & Children and Youth Substance Use Prevention as some initiatives that have successfully improving health factors and outcomes.

One area of improvement that Harris said she is particularly proud of is the decrease in physical inactivity, which means that more Rowan Countians are getting proper exercise.

The rankings will help the Health Department allocate resources and determine what initiatives and programs it starts or continues moving forward, Harris said.

Since the data used is several years removed, the impact of COVID-19 was not evident in the 2021 rankings. The effects of the pandemic, Harris said, will probably be seen starting with next year’s rankings.

“Where I think we’ll end up seeing COVID really make changes in this is years of life lost,” Harris said. “If individuals who were younger passed away from COVID, say they were only 50, that’s 50 years of life lost. That’s really going to show up and for us we have had a significant number of individuals who have passed away due to COVID.”

In total, 297 Rowan County residents have died as a result of COVID-19.

While Harris was pleased with Rowan County’s overall rise in the rankings, the data did show several areas that need improvement. The number of adults smoking is a concern, she said, as is the rise in sexually transmitted infections and the number of poor mental health days. 

Harris said the Health Department will look to address those areas going forward and hopes to continue to be at the forefront of healthcare in Rowan County.

“That’s what the Health Department is here for — to be that leader and strategic thinker in public health and address some of what we call social determinants in health and to advocate for beneficial changes for the community,” Harris said. “The county as a whole will look at this and say, ‘This is where we are, but this is where we want to go,’ and think innovatively about how we can support health.”

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