Dynamics of Mask Use as a Prevention Strategy against SARS-CoV-2 in Panama.
Early in the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, many national public health authorities implemented non-pharmaceutical interventions to mitigate disease outbreaks. Panamá established mandatory mask use two months after its first documented case. Initial compliance was high, but diverse masks were used in public areas. We studied behavioral dynamics of mask use through the first two COVID-19 waves in Panama, to improve the implementation of effective, low-cost public health containment measures when populations are exposed to novel air-borne pathogens. Mask use behavior was recorded from pedestrians in four Panamanian populations (August to December 2020). We recorded facial coverings and if used, the type of mask, and gender and estimated age of the wearer. Our results showed that people were highly compliant (>95%) with mask mandates and demonstrated important population-level behaviors: (1) decreasing use of cloth masks over time, and increasing use of surgical masks; (2) mask use was 3-fold lower in suburban neighborhoods than other public areas and (3) young people were least likely to wear masks. Results help focus on highly effective, low-cost, public health interventions for managing and controlling a pandemic. Considerations of behavioral preferences for different masks, relative to pricing and availability, are essential for optimizing public health policies. Policies to increase the availability of effective masks, and behavioral nudges to increase acceptance, and to facilitate mask usage, during the ongoing SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, and for future pandemics of respiratory pathogens, are key tools, especially for nations lagging in access to expensive vaccines and pharmacological approaches.