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Introduction: Assessing the impact of COVID-19 policy is critical for informing future policies. However, there are concerns about the overall strength of COVID-19 impact evaluation studies given the circumstances for evaluation and concerns about the publication environment. This study systematically reviewed the strength of evidence in the published COVID-19 policy impact evaluation literature. Methods: We included studies that were primarily designed to estimate the quantitative impact of one or more implemented COVID-19 policies on direct SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 outcomes. After searching PubMed for peer-reviewed articles published on November 26 or earlier and screening, all studies were reviewed by three reviewers first independently and then to consensus. The review tool was based on previously developed and release review guidance for COVID-19 policy impact evaluation, assessing what impact evaluation method was used, graphical display of outcomes data, functional form for the outcomes, timing between policy and impact, concurrent changes to the outcomes, and an overall rating. Results: After 102 articles were identified as potentially meeting inclusion criteria, we identified 36 published articles that evaluated the quantitative impact of COVID-19 policies on direct COVID-19 outcomes. The majority (n=23/36) of studies in our sample examined the impact of stay-at-home requirements. Nine studies were set aside because the study design was considered inappropriate for COVID-19 policy impact evaluation (n=8 pre/post; n=1 cross-section), and 27 articles were given a full consensus assessment. 20/27 met criteria for graphical display of data, 5/27 for functional form, 19/27 for timing between policy implementation and impact, and only 3/27 for concurrent changes to the outcomes. Only 1/27 studies passed all of the above checks, and 4/27 were rated as overall appropriate. Including the 9 studies set aside, reviewers found that only four of the 36 identified published and peer-reviewed health policy impact evaluation studies passed a set of key design checks for identifying the causal impact of policies on COVID-19 outcomes. Discussion: The reviewed literature directly evaluating the impact of COVID-19 policies largely failed to meet key design criteria for useful inference. This was largely driven by the circumstances under which policies were passed making it difficult to attribute changes in COVID-19 outcomes to particular policies. More reliable evidence review is needed to both identify and produce policy-actionable evidence, alongside the recognition that actionable evidence is often unlikely to be feasible.

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