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The Impact of Community Masking on COVID-19: A Cluster-Randomized Trial in Bangladesh

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Mask usage remains low across many parts of the world during the COVID- 19 pandemic, and strategies to increase mask-wearing remain untested. Our objectives were to identify strategies that can persistently increase mask-wearing and assess the impact of increasing mask-wearing on symptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infections. We conducted a cluster-randomized trial of community-level mask promotion in rural Bangladesh from November 2020 to April 2021 (N=600 villages, N=342,126 adults). We cross-randomized mask promotion strategies at the village and household level, including cloth vs. surgical masks. All intervention arms received free masks, information on the importance of masking, role modeling by community leaders, and in-person reminders for 8 weeks. The control group did not receive any interventions. Neither participants nor field staff were blinded to intervention assignment. Outcomes included symptomatic SARS-CoV-2 seroprevalence (primary) and prevalence of proper mask-wearing, physical distancing, and symptoms consistent with COVID-19 (secondary). Mask-wearing and physical distancing were assessed through direct observation at least weekly at mosques, markets, the main entrance roads to villages, and tea stalls. At 5 and 9 weeks follow-up, we surveyed all reachable participants about COVID-related symptoms. Blood samples collected at 10-12 weeks of follow-up for symptomatic individuals were analyzed for SARS-CoV-2 IgG antibodies. There were 178,288 individuals in the intervention group and 163,838 individuals in the control group. The intervention increased proper mask-wearing from 13.3% in control villages (N=806,547 observations) to 42.3% in treatment villages (N=797,715 observations) (adjusted percentage point difference = 0.29 [0.27, 0.31]). This tripling of mask usage was sustained during the intervention period and two weeks after. Physical distancing increased from 24.1% in control villages to 29.2% in treatment villages (adjusted percentage point difference = 0.05 [0.04, 0.06]). After 5 months, the impact of the intervention faded, but mask-wearing remained 10 percentage points higher in the intervention group. The proportion of individuals with COVID-like symptoms was 7.62% (N=13,273) in the intervention arm and 8.62% (N=13,893) in the control arm. Blood samples were collected from N=10,952 consenting, symptomatic individuals. Adjusting for baseline covariates, the intervention reduced symptomatic seroprevalence by 9.3% (adjusted prevalence ratio (aPR) = 0.91 [0.82, 1.00]; control prevalence 0.76%; treatment prevalence 0.68%). In villages randomized to surgical masks (n = 200), the relative reduction was 11.2% overall (aPR = 0.89 [0.78, 1.00]) and 34.7% among individuals 60+ (aPR = 0.65 [0.46, 0.85]). No adverse events were reported. 

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