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May 20, 2021

Face masks effectively limit the probability of SARS-CoV-2 transmission

Posted by in categories: biotech/medical, particle physics

Do we need to revisit this? 🤔


Airborne transmission by droplets and aerosols is important for the spread of viruses. Face masks are a well-established preventive measure, but their effectiveness for mitigating SARS-CoV-2 transmission is still under debate. We show that variations in mask efficacy can be explained by different regimes of virus abundance and related to population-average infection probability and reproduction number. For SARS-CoV-2, the viral load of infectious individuals can vary by orders of magnitude. We find that most environments and contacts are under conditions of low virus abundance (virus-limited) where surgical masks are effective at preventing virus spread. More advanced masks and other protective equipment are required in potentially virus-rich indoor environments including medical centers and hospitals. Masks are particularly effective in combination with other preventive measures like ventilation and distancing.

Airborne transmission is one of the main pathways for the transmission of respiratory viruses, including the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) (1). Wearing face masks has been widely advocated to mitigate transmission. Masks are thought to protect people in two ways: source control reducing the emission and spread of respiratory viruses through airborne droplets and aerosols, and wearer protection reducing the inhalation of airborne respiratory viruses.

The effectiveness of masks, however, is still under debate. Compared to N95/FFP2 respirators which have very low particle penetration rates (around ~5%), surgical and similar masks exhibit higher and more variable penetration rates (around ~30–70%) (2, 3). Given the large number of particles emitted upon respiration and especially upon sneezing or coughing , the number of respiratory particles that may penetrate masks is substantial, which is one of the main reasons leading to doubts about their efficacy in preventing infections. Moreover, randomized clinical trials show inconsistent or inconclusive results, with some studies reporting only a marginal benefit or no effect of mask use (5, 6). Thus, surgical and similar masks are often considered to be ineffective. On the other hand, observational data show that regions or facilities with a higher percentage of the population wearing masks have better control of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) (7–9).

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