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Report: McDowell repeats as unhealthiest West Virginia county; Pendleton is tops in well-being

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CHARLESTON, West Virginia — The economy in impoverished McDowell County has gone downhill in the decade since U.S. Steel pulled out, and a report released Wednesday shows the county's overall well-being remains dead last in West Virginia.

The southern West Virginia coalfield county has shown no overall improvement in the six years since the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and University of Wisconsin researchers began ranking the health of the state's 55 counties.

The report used more than two dozen health, social, economic and environmental factors.

Here is a look at some of the counties at the bottom and the top in West Virginia:


McDOWELL'S WOES

In the 1960s, McDowell County ranked first in U.S. coal production. By 2003, U.S. Steel had sold the last of its mining operations there, and other businesses began to shut down, too. The news got worse this week when Alpha Natural Resources permanently laid off 36 miners.

Long-promised highway projects — the Coalfields Expressway to the east and the 95-mile King Coal Highway to the west — have been built in small chunks with no completion date in sight.

McDowell County lost 23 percent of its population between 2000 and 2013, when it dropped to less than 21,000.

The county has the nation's highest rate of overdose deaths from prescription painkillers. It leads the state in teen pregnancies and children in poverty. The county's unemployment rate was 14.4 percent in February.

The report found McDowell remained last among the counties in social and economic factors; fell from 53rd to 54th in health behaviors and clinical care, and dropped nine spots to 38th in environmental factors including air particulates, drinking water safety and violations, and housing and transit issues.

McDowell County improved its ratio of physicians, dentists and mental health providers to residents, but the county continues to have high rates of physical inactivity, obesity and adult smoking, and the premature death rate is nearly double the state average, the report said.


PENDLETON PROUD

The report ranked rural Pendleton County in eastern West Virginia as the healthiest.

Pendleton County showed a strong improvement in clinical care, increasing its ratio of both primary care physicians and dentists to residents and reducing its preventable hospital stays.

The county also slipped a bit but remained strong in health-related behaviors, social and economic factors, and the percentage of residents who drive alone to work or have long commutes.

Pendleton is home to Spruce Knob, at 4,863 feet the highest point in in the Allegheny Mountains, and the tourist-luring sandstone peaks of Seneca Rocks.


BEST OF THE REST

Jefferson was the second-healthiest county — up three spots from last year — and Monongalia dropped one spot to third.

Last year's leader, Pleasants County, dropped to fourth. Upshur improved two spots to fifth.


STILL STRUGGLING

None of the 10 least healthy counties were in the northern part of the state.

Other counties with the poorest health were Wyoming, Mingo, Logan, Mercer, Boone, Lincoln, Raleigh, Wayne and Nicholas.

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