Physical interventions to interrupt or reduce the spread of respiratory viruses
Medical/surgical masks compared to no masks
We included 12 trials (10 cluster‐RCTs) comparing medical/surgical masks versus no masks to prevent the spread of viral respiratory illness (two trials with healthcare workers and 10 in the community). Wearing masks in the community probably makes little or no difference to the outcome of influenza‐like illness (ILI)/COVID‐19 like illness compared to not wearing masks (risk ratio (RR) 0.95, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.84 to 1.09; 9 trials, 276,917 participants; moderate‐certainty evidence. Wearing masks in the community probably makes little or no difference to the outcome of laboratory‐confirmed influenza/SARS‐CoV‐2 compared to not wearing masks (RR 1.01, 95% CI 0.72 to 1.42; 6 trials, 13,919 participants; moderate‐certainty evidence). Harms were rarely measured and poorly reported (very low‐certainty evidence).
N95/P2 respirators compared to medical/surgical masks
We pooled trials comparing N95/P2 respirators with medical/surgical masks (four in healthcare settings and one in a household setting). We are very uncertain on the effects of N95/P2 respirators compared with medical/surgical masks on the outcome of clinical respiratory illness (RR 0.70, 95% CI 0.45 to 1.10; 3 trials, 7779 participants; very low‐certainty evidence). N95/P2 respirators compared with medical/surgical masks may be effective for ILI (RR 0.82, 95% CI 0.66 to 1.03; 5 trials, 8407 participants; low‐certainty evidence). Evidence is limited by imprecision and heterogeneity for these subjective outcomes. The use of a N95/P2 respirators compared to medical/surgical masks probably makes little or no difference for the objective and more precise outcome of laboratory‐confirmed influenza infection (RR 1.10, 95% CI 0.90 to 1.34; 5 trials, 8407 participants; moderate‐certainty evidence). Restricting pooling to healthcare workers made no difference to the overall findings. Harms were poorly measured and reported, but discomfort wearing medical/surgical masks or N95/P2 respirators was mentioned in several studies (very low‐certainty evidence).
One previously reported ongoing RCT has now been published and observed that medical/surgical masks were non‐inferior to N95 respirators in a large study of 1009 healthcare workers in four countries providing direct care to COVID‐19 patients.
In 2021, the CDC put out the word that masks were over 80 percent effective in stopping the spread of covid. The was a major support for mandatory masking - even of 5 year-olds.
The high risk of bias in the trials, variation in outcome measurement, and relatively low adherence with the interventions during the studies hampers drawing firm conclusions. There were additional RCTs during the pandemic related to physical interventions but a relative paucity given the importance of the question of masking and its relative effectiveness and the concomitant measures of mask adherence which would be highly relevant to the measurement of effectiveness, especially in the elderly and in young children.
There is uncertainty about the effects of face masks. The low to moderate certainty of evidence means our confidence in the effect estimate is limited, and that the true effect may be different from the observed estimate of the effect. The pooled results of RCTs did not show a clear reduction in respiratory viral infection with the use of medical/surgical masks. There were no clear differences between the use of medical/surgical masks compared with N95/P2 respirators in healthcare workers when used in routine care to reduce respiratory viral infection. Hand hygiene is likely to modestly reduce the burden of respiratory illness, and although this effect was also present when ILI and laboratory‐confirmed influenza were analysed separately, it was not found to be a significant difference for the latter two outcomes. Harms associated with physical interventions were under‐investigated.