This rapid systematic review of evidence asks whether (i) wearing a face mask, (ii) one type of mask over another and (iii) mandatory mask policies can reduce the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 infection, either in community-based or healthcare settings. A search of studies published 1 January 2020–27 January 2023 yielded 5185 unique records. Due to a paucity of randomized controlled trials (RCTs), observational studies were included in the analysis. We analysed 35 studies in community settings (three RCTs and 32 observational) and 40 in healthcare settings (one RCT and 39 observational). Ninety-five per cent of studies included were conducted before highly transmissible Omicron variants emerged. Ninety-one per cent of observational studies were at ‘critical’ risk of bias (ROB) in at least one domain, often failing to separate the effects of masks from concurrent interventions. More studies found that masks (
n= 39/47; 83%) and mask mandates ( n= 16/18; 89%) reduced infection than found no effect ( n= 8/65; 12%) or favoured controls ( n= 1/65; 2%). Seven observational studies found that respirators were more protective than surgical masks, while five found no statistically significant difference between the two mask types. Despite the ROB, and allowing for uncertain and variable efficacy, we conclude that wearing masks, wearing higher quality masks (respirators), and mask mandates generally reduced SARS-CoV-2 transmission in these study populations.
This article is part of the theme issue 'The effectiveness of non-pharmaceutical interventions on the COVID-19 pandemic: the evidence'.