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Policy decisions on COVID-19 interventions should be informed by a local, regional and national understanding of SARS-CoV-2 transmission. Epidemic waves may result when restrictions are lifted or poorly adhered to, variants with new phenotypic properties successfully invade, or when infection spreads to susceptible sub-populations. Three COVID-19 epidemic waves have been observed in Kenya. Using a mechanistic mathematical model we explain the first two distinct waves by differences in contact rates in high and low social-economic groups, and the third wave by the introduction of a new higher-transmissibility variant. Reopening schools led to a minor increase in transmission between the second and third waves. Our predictions of current population exposure in Kenya (~75% June 1st) have implications for a fourth wave and future control strategies.

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