Background: A growing body of scientiﬁc evidence suggests that face masks can slow the spread of COVID-19 and save lives, but mask usage remains low across many parts of the world, and strategies to increase mask usage remain untested and unclear. Methods: We conducted a cluster-randomized trial of community-level mask promotion in rural Bangladesh involving 341,830 adults in 600 villages. We employed a series of strategies to promote mask usage, including free household distribution of surgical or cloth masks, distribution and promotion at markets and mosques, mask advocacy by Imams during Friday prayers, role modeling by local leaders, promoters periodically monitoring passers-by and reminding people to put on masks, village police accompanying those mask promoters, providing monetary rewards or certiﬁcates to villages if mask-wearing rate improves, public signaling of mask-wearing via signage, text message reminders, messaging emphasizing either altruistic or self-protection motives for mask-wearing, and extracting verbal commitments from households. The primary objective was to assess which of these interventions would increase proper (covering nose and mouth) wearing of face masks, and secondarily, whether mask promotion unintentionally creates moral hazard and decreases social distancing. This analysis is part of larger study evaluating the eﬀect of mask-wearing on transmission of SARS-CoV-2.
Results: There were 64,937 households in the intervention group and 64,183 households in the control group; study recruitment has ended. In the control group, proper mask-wearing was practiced by 13% of those observed across the study period. Free distribution of masks along with role modeling by community leaders produced only small increases in mask usage during pilot interventions. Adding periodic monitoring by mask promoters to remind people in streets and public places to put on the masks we provided increased proper mask-wearing by 29.0 percentage points (95% CI: 26.7% - 31.3%). This tripling of mask usage was sustained over all 10 weeks of surveillance, which includes a period after intervention activities ended. Physical distancing, measured as the fraction of individuals at least one arm’s length apart, also increased by 5.2 percentage points (95% CI: 4.2%-6.3%). Beyond the core intervention package comprised of free distribution and promotion at households/mosques/markets, leader endorsements plus periodic monitoring and reminders, several elements had no additional eﬀect on mask wearing, including: text reminders, public signage commitments, monetary or non-monetary incentives, altruistic messaging or verbal commitments, or village police accompanying the mask promoters (the last not cross-randomized, but assessed in panel data). No adverse events were reported during the study period.
Conclusions: Our intervention demonstrates a scalable and cost-eﬀective method to promote mask adoption and save lives, and identiﬁes a precise combination of intervention activities that were necessary. Comparisons between pilots shows that free mask distribution alone is not suﬀicient to increase mask-wearing, but adding periodic monitoring in public places to remind people to wear the distributed masks had large eﬀects on behavior. The absence of any further eﬀect of the village police suggests that the operative mechanism is not any threat of formal legal sanctions, but shame and people’s aversion to a light informal social sanction. The persistence of eﬀects for 10 weeks and after the end of the active intervention period, as well as increases in physical distancing, all point to changes in social norms as a key driver of behavior change. Our cross-randomizations suggest that improved mask-wearing norms can be achieved without incentives that require costly monitoring, that aesthetic design choices and colors can influence mask-wearing, and that surgical masks with a substantially higher ﬁltration eﬀiciency can be a cost-eﬀective alternative to cloth masks (1/3 the cost) and are equally or more likely to be worn. Implementing these interventions – including distribution of free masks, and the information campaign, reminders, encouragement – cost $2.30-$3.75 per villager, or between $8 and $13 per person adopting a mask. Combined with existing estimates of the eﬀicacy of masks in preventing COVID-19 deaths, this implies that the intervention cost $28,000-$66,000 per life saved. Beyond reducing the transmission of COVID-19, mask distribution is likely to be a cost-eﬀective strategy to prevent future respiratory disease outbreaks.
Methods: 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.
Results: 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.
Conclusions: Our intervention demonstrates a scalable and effective method to promote mask adoption and reduce symptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infections.