Persistence and extinction are fundamental processes in ecological systems that are difficult to accurately measure due to stochasticity and incomplete observation. Moreover, these processes operate on multiple scales, from individual populations to metapopulations. Here, we examine an extensive new data set of measles case reports and associated demographics in pre-vaccine era US cities, alongside a classic England & Wales data set. We first infer the per-population quasi-continuous distribution of log incidence. We then use stochastic, spatially implicit metapopulation models to explore the frequency of rescue events and apparent extinctions. We show that, unlike critical community size, the inferred distributions account for observational processes, allowing direct comparisons between metapopulations. The inferred distributions scale with population size. We use these scalings to estimate extinction boundary probabilities. We compare these predictions with measurements in individual populations and random aggregates of populations, highlighting the importance of medium-sized populations in metapopulation persistence.