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One of Virginia’s poorest cities is also its least healthy, new rankings show

Downtown Petersburg. The city south of Richmond is ranked as Virginia’s least health locality.
Downtown Petersburg. The city south of Richmond is ranked as Virginia’s least health locality.(Julia Rendleman)
Published: Apr. 27, 2022 at 8:52 AM EDT
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For the second year in a row, Petersburg ranked as the least healthy locality in Virginia while Falls Church took over first place.

The rankings, released Wednesday by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and University of Wisconsin’s Population Health Institute, are meant to offer an annual snapshot of more than 90 measures affecting health and quality of life in counties across the United States. Researchers factor in behaviors including smoking and excessive drinking but also include measures like violent crime rates and access to grocery stores to assess the overall health of a community.

As in previous years, though, the gulf between Virginia’s highest and lowest-ranked counties underscores the correlation between wealth and health outcomes — a disparity that health officials have long struggled to equalize. Falls Church, a majority White city in Northern Virginia, has a median household income of nearly $147,000 a year, according to the most recent U.S. Census data. Petersburg’s, on the other hand, is less than half of that, at just over $43,000 a year.

The majority-Black city south of Richmond has struggled with declining wealth for decades. Once a prosperous community fueled by the railway and tobacco industries, its demographics shifted sharply in the 1970s when White residents began moving out of the city following school desegregation in Virginia. That exodus, coupled with a declining railroad industry, led to job losses and continued relocation by both residents and businesses. By 2009, the city’s tax revenue wasn’t enough to cover its expenditures, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond.

Medical providers are also in short supply. At a town hall with Gov. Glenn Youngkin earlier this year, city leaders expressed concern that their community of over 33,000 had no urgent care clinic within city limits. Petersburg’s ratio of residents to primary care providers is 1,420 to 1, according to this year’s county health rankings, compared to 330 to 1 in Falls Church. And its rate of preventable hospital stays for conditions that could be managed in outpatient settings was more than double that of Falls Church.

COVID-19 also played a role. In 2021, Petersburg’s premature death rate — a measure of residents who died before the age of 75 — was already nearly seven times higher than Arlington’s, the top-rated county last year. Last year’s report didn’t include deaths attributed to the virus, but those were factored into the rankings in 2022, according to Molly Murphy, a community scientist with the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.

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.(Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy

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