Importance: Clinical studies have been inconclusive about the effectiveness of N95 respirators and medical masks in preventing health care personnel (HCP) from acquiring workplace viral respiratory infections.
Objective: To compare the effect of N95 respirators vs medical masks for prevention of influenza and other viral respiratory infections among HCP.
Design, setting, and participants: A cluster randomized pragmatic effectiveness study conducted at 137 outpatient study sites at 7 US medical centers between September 2011 and May 2015, with final follow-up in June 2016. Each year for 4 years, during the 12-week period of peak viral respiratory illness, pairs of outpatient sites (clusters) within each center were matched and randomly assigned to the N95 respirator or medical mask groups.
Interventions: Overall, 1993 participants in 189 clusters were randomly assigned to wear N95 respirators (2512 HCP-seasons of observation) and 2058 in 191 clusters were randomly assigned to wear medical masks (2668 HCP-seasons) when near patients with respiratory illness.
Main outcomes and measures: The primary outcome was the incidence of laboratory-confirmed influenza. Secondary outcomes included incidence of acute respiratory illness, laboratory-detected respiratory infections, laboratory-confirmed respiratory illness, and influenzalike illness. Adherence to interventions was assessed.
Results: Among 2862 randomized participants (mean [SD] age, 43 [11.5] years; 2369 [82.8%]) women), 2371 completed the study and accounted for 5180 HCP-seasons. There were 207 laboratory-confirmed influenza infection events (8.2% of HCP-seasons) in the N95 respirator group and 193 (7.2% of HCP-seasons) in the medical mask group (difference, 1.0%, [95% CI, -0.5% to 2.5%]; P = .18) (adjusted odds ratio [OR], 1.18 [95% CI, 0.95-1.45]). There were 1556 acute respiratory illness events in the respirator group vs 1711 in the mask group (difference, -21.9 per 1000 HCP-seasons [95% CI, -48.2 to 4.4]; P = .10); 679 laboratory-detected respiratory infections in the respirator group vs 745 in the mask group (difference, -8.9 per 1000 HCP-seasons, [95% CI, -33.3 to 15.4]; P = .47); 371 laboratory-confirmed respiratory illness events in the respirator group vs 417 in the mask group (difference, -8.6 per 1000 HCP-seasons [95% CI, -28.2 to 10.9]; P = .39); and 128 influenzalike illness events in the respirator group vs 166 in the mask group (difference, -11.3 per 1000 HCP-seasons [95% CI, -23.8 to 1.3]; P = .08). In the respirator group, 89.4% of participants reported "always" or "sometimes" wearing their assigned devices vs 90.2% in the mask group.
Conclusions and relevance: Among outpatient health care personnel, N95 respirators vs medical masks as worn by participants in this trial resulted in no significant difference in the incidence of laboratory-confirmed influenza.
Trial registration: ClinicalTrials.gov Identifier: NCT01249625.