Unmasking the mask studies: Why the effectiveness of surgical masks in preventing respiratory infections has been underestimated

Pratyush K Kollepara, M.Sc, Alexander F Siegenfeld, S.B, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Ph.D, Yaneer Bar-Yam, Ph.D

Journal of Travel Medicine, taab144

Background: Pre-pandemic empirical studies have produced mixed statistical results on the effectiveness of masks against respiratory viruses, leading to confusion that may have contributed to organizations such as the WHO and CDC initially not recommending that the general public wear masks during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Methods: A threshold-based dose–response curve framework is used to analyse the effects of interventions on infection probabilities for both single and repeated exposure events. Empirical studies on mask effectiveness are evaluated with a statistical power analysis that includes the effect of adherence to mask usage protocols.

Results: When the adherence to mask-usage guidelines is taken into account, the empirical evidence indicates that masks prevent disease transmission: all studies we analysed that did not find surgical masks to be effective were under-powered to such an extent that even if masks were 100% effective, the studies in question would still have been unlikely to find a statistically significant effect. We also provide a framework for understanding the effect of masks on the probability of infection for single and repeated exposures. The framework demonstrates that masks can have a disproportionately large protective effect and that more frequently wearing a mask provides super-linearly compounding protection.

Conclusions: This work shows (1) that both theoretical and empirical evidence is consistent with masks protecting against respiratory infections and (2) that nonlinear effects and statistical considerations regarding the percentage of exposures for which masks are worn must be taken into account when designing empirical studies and interpreting their results.

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