Working Paper Concept Paper Version 2 This version is not peer-reviewed

Public Use of Masks to Control the Coronavirus Pandemic

Version 1 : Received: 2 April 2020 / Approved: 3 April 2020 / Online: 3 April 2020 (03:47:23 CEST)
Version 2 : Received: 10 April 2020 / Approved: 12 April 2020 / Online: 12 April 2020 (08:41:58 CEST)

How to cite: Longrich, N.R.; Sheppard, S.K. Public Use of Masks to Control the Coronavirus Pandemic. Preprints 2020, 2020040021 Longrich, N.R.; Sheppard, S.K. Public Use of Masks to Control the Coronavirus Pandemic. Preprints 2020, 2020040021


The current Coronavirus Disease 19 (COVID-19) pandemic, caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, is unprecedented in recent history and threatens the lives and livelihoods of billions worldwide. The rapid spread and lack of modern parallels have left governments, health agencies, and the public racing to understand how to best mitigate and ultimately suppress the pandemic, but we are still working to understand the strengths and weaknesses of various interventions at our disposal. Few issues have been as contentious as the public use of face masks to control the pandemic’s spread. There is ongoing debate about their effectiveness, but an increasing body of evidence suggests that masks could be a useful in preventing the spread of coronavirus, leading several governments and health agencies to review and revise their policies. Here, we review the theory and evidence behind use of masks. The theory behind masks is that they prevent the spread of viral particles by infected persons, and inhalation of viral particles by uninfected persons. Even assuming masks are not 100% effective in preventing infection, they may reduce severity of infection by reducing viral dosing. Laboratory studies suggest masks may be effective in stopping both exhalation and inhalation of viral particles. However, real-world studies provided limited evidence for the use of masks in controlling influenza transmission and highlight potential problems associated with their misuse, such as poor compliance or improper use. Evidence for efficacy of face masks against the first SARS virus, SARS-CoV-1, implies that they may be effective against the current outbreak of SARS-Cov-2 virus. This is important as mathematical modeling suggests that even small reductions of in transmission rates can make a large difference over time, potentially slowing the pace of viral pandemics and limiting their spread. Perhaps the strongest argument for the use of masks is that countries with early adoption of masks have tended to see flatter pandemic curves, even without strict nationwide lockdowns. There is little evidence that respirators are more effective than surgical masks, but this may be due to misuse or poor compliance. Studies suggest some non-medical masks perform on par with medical masks. Improvised masks are less effective than medical masks, but may provide better protection than nothing at all. While many governments now encourage the use of improvised face coverings, more will need to be known about material, design, and who needs to wear masks, and when, to ensure effectiveness. Proper use of masks will also be important; if masks are used improperly or infrequently they may provide limited protection. It is important that public health policy makers consider the debate and the potential of masks as part of multi-faceted coronavirus control strategies.

Subject Areas

COVID-19; face masks; epidemiology; coronavirus; pandemics

Comments (1)

Comment 1
Received: 12 April 2020
Commenter: Nicholas Longrich
Commenter's Conflict of Interests: Author
Comment: Extensive revision, addition of second author, more figures, more references; provides a more thorough overview of evidence
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