The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has led at times to a scarcity of personal protective equipment, including medical masks, for health care clinicians, especially in primary care settings. The objective of this review was to summarize current evidence regarding the use of cloth masks to prevent respiratory viral infections, such as severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), among health care clinicians.
We searched 5 databases, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, and the reference lists of identified articles on April 3, 2020. All identified publications were independently screened by 2 reviewers. Two authors independently extracted data and graded the studies. Randomized control trials (RCTs) were graded using the Consolidated Standards of Reporting Trials (CONSORT) checklist, and observational and nonhuman subject studies were graded using 11 domains common across frequently used critical appraisal tools. All discrepancies were resolved by consensus.
Our search identified 136 original publications. Nine studies met inclusion criteria. We performed a qualitative synthesis of the data from these studies. Four nonrandomized trials, 3 laboratory studies, 1 single-case experiment, and 1 RCT were identified. The laboratory studies found that cloth materials provided measurable levels of particle filtration but were less efficacious at blocking biologic material than medical masks. The RCT found that cloth masks were associated with significantly more viral infections than medical masks.
The current literature suggests that cloth materials are somewhat efficacious in filtering particulate matter and aerosols but provide a worse fit and inferior protection compared to medical masks in clinical environments. The quality and quantity of literature addressing this question are lacking. Cloth masks lack evidence for adequate protection of health care clinicians against respiratory viral infections.

© 2021 Annals of Family Medicine, Inc.