Data from the state Center for Disease Control and Prevention offer some promising news for Mainers who have been employing social distancing to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus: The number of new cases appears to have leveled off.

But as people get eager to learn when the state will lift the stay-at-home order and permit businesses to reopen, it’s important that we don’t draw the wrong conclusions from the numbers.

One of the most dangerous emerging ideas is that COVID-19 is mostly an urban problem, and that people who live and work in rural areas would have little to lose if the restrictions were loosened for them. This line of thought was expressed in a column published Friday in the Kennebec Journal and the Portland Press Herald. The author, David Trahan of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, defended classifying gun shops as essential businesses, saying they are part of a healthy rural way of life.

“I predict when history measures success in combating the virus, it will find social distancing is a natural byproduct and protection for those living the rural lifestyle,” he wrote.

This couldn’t be more wrong.

Yes, most of the cases so far have been in Cumberland and York counties, the state’s most populous counties, which both have pockets of dense development.

But that doesn’t mean that living at the end of a long driveway will keep you from getting sick. In fact, a number of factors make rural areas especially vulnerable to an outbreak once the virus does get there.

It’s true that some aspects of social distancing are much easier in the country. When people don’t have to crowd onto a bus or a subway car, they are less likely to be infected on the way to work.

But other factors put them at greater risk. Many rural communities in Maine don’t have the high-speed internet service that lets large numbers of city dwellers work from home.

Many of the jobs that exist in rural economies don’t lend themselves to social distancing. Most people who work in mills, hospitals, nursing homes or retail stores don’t have a work-from-home option. Those employees who live in rural areas often have to drive a long way to get to work, where they come into contact with other people who have also driven a long way. That kind of contact is all that would be needed to spark an outbreak in a small community. And since rural Mainers tend to be older than their counterparts in more populated areas, they have an increased risk from a disease in which 80 percent of fatalities are people age 65 and older.

The reason that social distancing has been as successful as it appears to be is that it forces us to behave as if the virus is everywhere. And we have had to do that because public health officials don’t really know where the virus is.

They have had to narrowly target their use of limited testing resources and make educated guesses. We have to assume that the official number of positive tests represents a fraction of the actual number of people who have the coronavirus. Testing in three nursing homes where there was a documented outbreak showed that a number of people are infected with the virus, but experience no symptoms. They could easily spread the disease unless the people around them are observing social distancing rules.

Just because many rural communities have not been hit by an outbreak yet doesn’t mean that rural areas are immune. It will take careful steps, guided by analysis of public health data, to know how and when to lift the stay-at-home order.

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