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Whether and when to mandate the wearing of facemasks in the community to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease 2019 remains controversial. Published literature across disciplines about the role of masks in mitigating severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) transmission is summarized. Growing evidence that SARS-CoV-2 is airborne indicates that infection control interventions must go beyond contact and droplet measures (such as handwashing and cleaning surfaces) and attend to masking and ventilation. Observational evidence suggests that masks work mainly by source control (preventing infected persons from transmitting the virus to others), but laboratory studies of mask filtration properties suggest that they could also provide some protection to wearers (protective effect). Even small reductions in individual transmission could lead to substantial reductions in population spread. To date, only 1 randomized controlled trial has examined a community mask recommendation. This trial did not identify a significant protective effect and was not designed to evaluate source control. Filtration properties and comfort vary widely across mask types. Masks may cause discomfort and communication difficulties. However, there is no evidence that masks result in significant physiologic decompensation or that risk compensation and fomite transmission are associated with mask wearing. The psychological effects of masks are culturally shaped; they may include threats to autonomy, social relatedness, and competence. Evidence suggests that the potential benefits of wearing masks likely outweigh the potential harms when SARS-CoV-2 is spreading in a community. However, mask mandates involve a tradeoff with personal freedom, so such policies should be pursued only if the threat is substantial and mitigation of spread cannot be achieved through other means.

Original publication




Journal article


Ann Intern Med

Publication Date