How effective are face masks in reducing transmission of Covid-19?

Overall, review of data to date suggests that face masks are quite effective in reducing the transmission of coronaviruses, including SARS-CoV-2, the cause of Covid-19. A Lancet 2020 meta-analysis involving over 12,000 subjects, found that transmission of coronaviruses (SARS-CoV-2, SARS and MERS) was reduced with face masks by 85% (adjusted O.R. 0.15, 95%CI 0.07-0.34).1

More specific to Covid-19, a study from Mass General Brigham hospitals found a significant drop in healthcare worker (HCW) SARS-CoV-2 PCR positivity rate from 21.3% to 11.5% following adoption of universal masking of HCWs and patients.2

An U.S. epidemiologic survey of 2,930 unique counties plus New York City found mandating face mask use in public was associated with a significant decline in the daily Covid-19 growth rate. 3 It was estimated that more than 200,000 Covid-19 cases were averted by May 22, 2020 as a result of the implementation of these mandates.

Another 2020 meta-analysis involving 21 studies reported an overall efficacy of masks (including surgical and N-95 masks) of 80% in healthcare workers and 47% in non-healthcare workers for respiratory virus transmission (including SARS, SARS-CoV-2 and influenza).4

A criticism of above reports has been their primarily retrospective nature. A randomized-controlled Danish study found a statistically insignificant 20% reduction in incident SARS-CoV-2 infection among mask wearers (5,6).    Despite its randomized-controlled design, this study had several limitations, including relatively low transmission rate in the community and lack of universal mask wearing in public during the study period. In addition, less than one-half of participants in the mask group reported adherence to wearing masks, and there was no assurance that masks were worn correctly when they did wear them. 

At most, this study suggests that it’s not enough for the uninfected to wear masks; the infected—often with little or no symptoms— should also wear them to help curb the pandemic.

So please do your part and tell your friends and family members to do the same by masking up while we are at war with Covid-19!

Bonus Pearl: Did you know that universal wearing of masks in the public in response to a respiratory virus pandemic is nothing new?  It was adopted as far back as 100 years ago during the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic!


  1. Chu DK, Akl EA, Duda S, et al. Physical distancing, face masks, and eye protection to prevent person-to-person transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Lancet 2020;395: 1973-87.
  2. Wang X, Ferro EG, Zhou G, et al. Association between universal masking in a health care system and SARS-CoV-2 positivity among health care workers. JAMA 2020;324:703-4.
  3. Lyu W, Wehby GL. Community use of face masks and COVID-19: evidence from a natural experiment of state mandates in the US. Health Affairs 2020;39: July 16.
  4. Liang M, Gao L, Cheng Ce, et al. Efficacy of face mask in preventing respiratory virus transmission: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Travel Med Infect Dis 2020;36:1-8. 
  5. Bundgaard H, Bundgaard JS, Tadeusz DE, et al. Effectiveness of adding a mask recommendation to other public health measures to prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection in Danish mask wearers. Ann Intern Med 2020; November 18.
  6. Frieden TR Cash-Goldwasser S. Of masks and methods. Ann Intern Med 2020; November 18.

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Disclosures: The listed questions and answers are solely the responsibility of the author and do not necessarily represent the official views of Mercy Hospital-St. Louis or its affiliate healthcare centers. Although every effort has been made to provide accurate information, the author is far from being perfect. The reader is urged to verify the content of the material with other sources as deemed appropriate and exercise clinical judgment in the interpretation and application of the information provided herein. No responsibility for an adverse outcome or guarantees for a favorable clinical result is assumed by the author. Thank you!

How effective are face masks in reducing transmission of Covid-19?

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