With its vast mountain ranges, diverse wildlife and clean air, Los Alamos County, New Mexico, has been ranked the healthiest community of 2020.
Located about 40 miles from Santa Fe, the county is home to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which developed the first atomic bombs during World War II. The county received a perfect score for measurements including drinking water quality, affordable housing availability, park access and population with an advanced degree, according to the annual U.S. News Healthiest Communities rankings report published Tuesday.
Los Alamos County also ranked among the best for low racial segregation (No. 3) and low preventable hospital admissions (No. 21).
“A healthy environment is part of what definitely contributes to (Los Alamos County) being a healthy community,” said Los Alamos County Council Chair Sara Scott, who wasn’t involved in the report. “People have the opportunity and the interest in getting out, taking advantage of our mountains, trails, biking, horse-riding (and) golfing.”
Douglas County, Colorado, is the runner-up, followed by Falls Church, Virginia, Broomfield County, Colorado, and Routt County, Colorado.
Columbia County, New York, ranked last in the top 500 healthiest communities.
“The Healthiest Communities rankings are a snapshot of how healthy a community is at a period in time,” said Deidre McPhillips, senior data editor at U.S. News & World Report. “This year, it was incredibly important to factor coronavirus into that analysis.”
Though data used to determine the rankings were obtained before the pandemic, new tools used in this year’s report provided Covid-19 data on communities and highlighted the disproportionate impact of the virus on Black and Hispanic communities.
The Healthiest Communities rankings and analysis are based on evaluations of nearly 3,000 communities nationwide for 84 health and health-related measurements in 10 categories, including community vitality, equity, economy, education, environment, food and nutrition, population health, housing, infrastructure and public safety.
By assessing which communities provide their citizens opportunities to live healthy, productive lives, the project serves to educate residents and government officials about optimal policies and practices for positive health outcomes.
The project results from a collaboration with the Aetna Foundation, a health philanthropy organization, and a partnership with the University of Missouri Center for Applied Research and Engagement Systems, a research institution for community health. The rankings are based on measurements obtained from sources including the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, an independent global health research center at the University of Washington in Seattle.
A health-oriented, giving community tackling a pandemic
A health-minded, giving community is part of what makes Los Alamos County so healthy, Scott said. “We’ve seen that certainly in terms of people being able to pull together in philanthropic efforts,” she added. “In the case of the pandemic, we’ve seen donations come in to help folks with utility support (and) folks banding together to make masks for workers or community members who don’t have them.”
That communal attitude contributed to the county’s four-pronged pandemic response: county operations, engagement and coordination, identification of new needs and communication, Scott said. In Los Alamos County, the rate of 124 Covid-19 cases per 100,000 residents was one of the 100 lowest rates in the country, the report found.
“We’re all on the same page about what our concerns are, what our tools are (and) what our needs are” such as child care and mortgage payments, Scott said. Communication with state officials and citizens was also imperative, in terms of where people could get tested, find support for their businesses or catch up on updates to public health orders.
“The community has been supportive of taking those measures seriously,” Scott said. “People understand why the measures are important, how they impact our safety and our ability to open businesses … and schools.”
The Covid-19 case rate of these communities was most strongly associated with scores in the Community Vitality category, especially regarding census response. What drives community vitality, illnesses and pandemics is whether people are informed, McPhillips said.
In Los Alamos County, Scott said, census responses “really help us then do a good job of identifying where our needs are and what the priorities are for continuing to keep this an amazing place to live and work and recreate in.”
Pandemic disparities among races
The 500 healthiest communities had a Covid-19 case rate that was 40% lower than other US counties as of August 24, the report said.
Counties with above-average populations of Black residents (at least 13%) and Hispanic residents (18% or more) had average Covid-19 case and death rates that were at least 1.2 times the national average. Counties that were more than 50% Black had average case and death rates that were approximately double the national average.
Majority-American Indian counties had a case rate that was higher than the national average as well.
“Communities of color have long been underserved, under-resourced and under fire,” said Susan L. Polan, the associate executive director of public affairs and advocacy at the American Public Health Association, who wasn’t involved in the study.
“Systemic racism in community institutions like health care, education, policing and others have led to the inequities we see in COVID-19 and many other preventable deaths,” Polan added via email.
Top communities for low disease rates
Diabetes prevalence was 38% higher in communities where more than a quarter of residents said they didn’t engage in leisure-time physical activity, the report said.
The top community for low obesity was Teton County, Wyoming, while Pitkin County, Colorado, was the best community for low diabetes.
Honolulu County, Hawaii, ranked No. 1 for the mental health category, which assessed deaths from suicide, alcohol or drugs, the rate of depression among Medicare beneficiaries and the number of poor mental health days per month, McPhillips said.
Community measures of “physical health and wellbeing can also impact mental health because they can limit or support the way individuals are able to move through their day and interact with their community,” Polan said.
And the factors most associated with “life expectancy are smoking rate, self-health assessment, teen birth rate, the number of poor mental health days and poverty rate,” McPhillips said.
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The U.S. News data hub for coronavirus and healthiest communities metrics can help people choose a neighborhood and work with their governments on improving their communities, she added.
When choosing where to live, people should assess whether the residence “is a cohesive community with easy access to healthy food, safe places to play and walk, good schools, diverse residents and leaderships, affordable housing, public transportation and a full range of other services,” Polan said. Local governments interested in investing in whole communities and economically sound, locally involved businesses are also pluses, she added.