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App Tracks Public Mask Wearing for Covid-19 Evidence

Covid-19 face mask

(Christo Anestev, Pixabay)

29 Sept. 2020. A mobile app is now available for individuals to count — NOT report — people wearing face masks, as an indicator of Covid-19 community infection spread. The MaskCount app is the work of the Regenstrief Institute in Indianapolis, Indiana, a health care information technology research center affiliated with Indiana University.

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, evidence from a number of studies shows wearing face masks can reduce the transmission of respiratory droplets responsible for many of the infections that spread throughout a community. A review of evidence in April 2020, published in Proceedings of the National Academies of Science notes, “The preponderance of evidence indicates that mask wearing reduces the transmissibility per contact by reducing transmission of infected droplets in both laboratory and clinical contexts. Public mask wearing is most effective at stopping spread of the virus when compliance is high.”

Another study, published in June in the journal Health Affairs, compared Covid-19 case counts and infection rates between states that mandate masks and those that don’t, with the authors concluding, “Estimates suggest that as a result of the implementation of these mandates, more than 200,000 Covid-19 cases were averted by May 22, 2020. The findings suggest that requiring face mask use in public could help in mitigating the spread of Covid-19.” But the authors also noted that “there is no direct evidence thus far on the magnitude of such effects, especially at a population level.”

Developers of MaskCount aim to fill this data gap with anonymous real-world evidence collected discreetly from app users. The app, available in Apple iOS and Android versions and 15 languages, first pinpoints the user’s location with the phone’s GPS feature. The user then clicks or swipes left when encountering a person not wearing a mask, or clicks/swipes right if the person is wearing a mask. Incorrect placement of the mask, such as exposing the nose, is counted as not wearing a mask. No photos are taken, nor are any other data collected about the individuals encountered by the users.

Data from individual users are transmitted to secure servers, with only aggregate results reported. Researchers at Regenstrief Institute plan to merge the MaskCount data with other community health indicators to help gauge effects of mask wearing on Covid-19 infection counts and rates, and provide real-world evidence for public health decision-making.

“We built this app,” says Regenstrief president and CEO Peter Embi in an institute statement, “using state-of-the-art crowd-sourcing technologies that let anyone submit anonymous data to help researchers and public health professionals develop new evidence about the use and effectiveness of masks. The more people use it, the more we hope to learn and work together to help end this pandemic.”

MaskCount graphic

MaskCount swipe screen (Regenstrief Institute)

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