Medical masks vs N95 respirators for preventing COVID-19 in healthcare workers: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized trials

Influenza Other Respir Viruses. 2020 Jul;14(4):365-373. doi: 10.1111/irv.12745. Epub 2020 Apr 21.


Background: Respiratory protective devices are critical in protecting against infection in healthcare workers at high risk of novel 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19); however, recommendations are conflicting and epidemiological data on their relative effectiveness against COVID-19 are limited.

Purpose: To compare medical masks to N95 respirators in preventing laboratory-confirmed viral infection and respiratory illness including coronavirus specifically in healthcare workers.

Data sources: MEDLINE, Embase, and CENTRAL from January 1, 2014, to March 9, 2020. Update of published search conducted from January 1, 1990, to December 9, 2014.

Study selection: Randomized controlled trials (RCTs) comparing the protective effect of medical masks to N95 respirators in healthcare workers.

Data extraction: Reviewer pair independently screened, extracted data, and assessed risk of bias and the certainty of the evidence.

Data synthesis: Four RCTs were meta-analyzed adjusting for clustering. Compared with N95 respirators; the use of medical masks did not increase laboratory-confirmed viral (including coronaviruses) respiratory infection (OR 1.06; 95% CI 0.90-1.25; I2 = 0%; low certainty in the evidence) or clinical respiratory illness (OR 1.49; 95% CI: 0.98-2.28; I2 = 78%; very low certainty in the evidence). Only one trial evaluated coronaviruses separately and found no difference between the two groups (P = .49).

Limitations: Indirectness and imprecision of available evidence.

Conclusions: Low certainty evidence suggests that medical masks and N95 respirators offer similar protection against viral respiratory infection including coronavirus in healthcare workers during non-aerosol-generating care. Preservation of N95 respirators for high-risk, aerosol-generating procedures in this pandemic should be considered when in short supply.

Keywords: COVID-19; N95 respirators; SARS-CoV-2; coronavirus; masks; meta-analysis; systematic review.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Meta-Analysis
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19
  • Coronavirus Infections / prevention & control*
  • Health Personnel
  • Humans
  • Infection Control / methods
  • Masks / standards*
  • Occupational Exposure / prevention & control*
  • Pandemics / prevention & control*
  • Pneumonia, Viral / prevention & control*
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Respiratory Protective Devices / standards
  • Respiratory Protective Devices / supply & distribution
  • Respiratory Tract Infections / prevention & control*
  • Respiratory Tract Infections / virology
  • Ventilators, Mechanical / standards*