The current pandemic of COVID-19 has lead to conflicting opinions on whether wearing facemasks outside of health care facilities protects against the infection. To better understand the value of wearing facemasks we undertook a rapid systematic review of existing scientific evidence about development of respiratory illness, linked to use of facemasks in community settings.

Methods: We included all study designs. There were 31 eligible studies (including 12 RCTs). Narrative synthesis and random-effects meta-analysis of attack rates for primary and secondary prevention in 28 studies were performed. Results were reported by design, setting and type of face barrier in primary prevention, and by who wore the facemask (index patient or well contacts) in secondary prevention trials. The preferred outcome was influenza-like illness (ILI) but similar outcomes were pooled with ILI when ILI was unavailable. GRADE quality assessment was based on RCTs with support from observational studies.

Results: Where specific information was available, most studies reported about use of medical grade (surgical paper masks). In 3 RCTs, wearing a facemask may very slightly reduce the odds of developing ILI/respiratory symptoms, by around 6% (OR 0.94, 95% CI 0.75 to 1.19, I 29%, low-certainty evidence). Greater effectiveness was suggested by observational studies. When both house-mates and an infected household member wore facemasks the odds of further household members becoming ill may be modestly reduced by around 19% (OR 0.81, 95%CI 0.48 to 1.37, I 45%, 5 RCTs, low certainty evidence). The protective effect was very small if only the well person (OR 0.93, 95% CI 0.68 to 1.28, I 11%, 2 RCTs, low uncertainty evidence) or the infected person wore the facemask (very low certainty evidence).

Discussion: Based on the RCTs we would conclude that wearing facemasks can be very slightly protective against primary infection from casual community contact, and modestly protective against household infections when both infected and uninfected members wear facemasks. However, the RCTs often suffered from poor compliance and controls using facemasks. Across observational studies the evidence in favour of wearing facemasks was stronger. We expect RCTs to under-estimate the protective effect and observational studies to exaggerate it. The evidence is not sufficiently strong to support widespread use of facemasks as a protective measure against COVID-19. However, there is enough evidence to support the use of facemasks for short periods of time by particularly vulnerable individuals when in transient higher risk situations. Further high quality trials are needed to assess when wearing a facemask in the community is most likely to be protective.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 6 Apr 2020

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