Physical interventions to interrupt or reduce the spread of respiratory viruses

…We included 11 new RCTs and cluster‐RCTs (610,872 participants) in this update, bringing the total number of RCTs to 78. Six of the new trials were conducted during the COVID‐19 pandemic; two from Mexico, and one each from Denmark, Bangladesh, England, and Norway. We identified four ongoing studies, of which one is completed, but unreported, evaluating masks concurrent with the COVID‐19 pandemic.
Many studies were conducted during non‐epidemic influenza periods. Several were conducted during the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic, and others in epidemic influenza seasons up to 2016. Therefore, many studies were conducted in the context of lower respiratory viral circulation and transmission compared to COVID‐19. The included studies were conducted in heterogeneous settings, ranging from suburban schools to hospital wards in high‐income countries; crowded inner city settings in low‐income countries; and an immigrant neighbourhood in a high‐income country. Adherence with interventions was low in many studies.
The risk of bias for the RCTs and cluster‐RCTs was mostly high or unclear.
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…