The required size of cluster randomized trials of nonpharmaceutical interventions in epidemic settings

Justin K. Sheen, Johannes Haushofer, C. Jessica E. Metcalf, Lee Kennedy-Shaffer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


To control the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and future pathogen outbreaks requires an understanding of which nonpharmaceutical interventions are effective at reducing transmission. Observational studies, however, are subject to biases that could erroneously suggest an impact on transmission, even when there is no true effect. Cluster randomized trials permit valid hypothesis tests of the effect of interventions on community transmission. While such trials could be completed in a relatively short period of time, they might require large sample sizes to achieve adequate power. However, the sample sizes required for such tests in outbreak settings are largely undeveloped, leaving unanswered the question of whether these designs are practical. We develop approximate sample size formulae and simulation-based sample size methods for cluster randomized trials in infectious disease outbreaks. We highlight key relationships between characteristics of transmission and the enrolled communities and the required sample sizes, describe settings where trials powered to detect a meaningful true effect size may be feasible, and provide recommendations for investigators in planning such trials. The approximate formulae and simulation banks may be used by investigators to quickly assess the feasibility of a trial, followed by more detailed methods to more precisely size the trial. For example, we show that community-scale trials requiring 220 clusters with 100 tested individuals per cluster are powered to identify interventions that reduce transmission by 40% in one generation interval, using parameters identified for SARS-CoV-2 transmission. For more modest treatment effects, or when transmission is extremely overdispersed, however, much larger sample sizes are required.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2466-2482
Number of pages17
JournalStatistics in Medicine
Issue number13
StatePublished - Jun 15 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Epidemiology
  • Statistics and Probability


  • SARS-CoV-2
  • nonpharmaceutical interventions
  • power
  • reproduction number
  • sample size


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