She calls it the Peter Pandemic: “I Won’t Grow Up. I Don’t Wanna Wear a Mask.”
Few people have more right to throw this shade than Dr. Laura Popper, a prominent Manhattan physician, critic of government leadership (that is, the lack thereof), Mount Sinai Medical School professor and, in recent months, chronicler of how way too many of us are failing to follow instructions to wear a mask.
“The only way to save America is for everyone to wear a mask,” she said the other day. “That’s the new government position. I was saying that before when the government was saying ‘don’t worry, don’t wear a mask.’ It’s a simple, simple thing. I’m a simple person. I’m a pediatrician.”
Popper also has found a 21st century way to use a smartphone and social media to fulfill what she describes as her role as “medical town crier” on behalf of public health.
This began in the early days of the outbreak when, like many New Yorkers, she found herself walking everywhere, particularly to her practice in the East 60s. To break up the monotony she began keeping a count of people as they passed: “Mask, no mask.”
The latest data projections say that coronavirus transmission can be cut by a third if most people wear a mask, as happened in Hong Kong. Popper’s census was coming up disturbingly short of that.
“I started walking and being so sad,” she recalled. But sadness began transmuting to anger. She thought about her patients and their families. She thought about her medical colleagues in ICUs and emergency rooms, lifting dead bodies out of ambulances. She began seeing all these unmasked faces as a direct assault on her friends and colleagues.
“I just started to take pictures.”
Her portfolios, posted on her Facebook page, form a visual chronicle of Manhattan in the time of COVID. There is the young man without a mask bouncing a soccer ball off his instep. The two women, one smoking, as they stand on the sidewalk in front of a Lenox Hill Hospital banner. Or the four teenage cyclists, straddling their bikes at a corner, not a mask among them.
One omnipresent image: the many masks that can be seen doing anything except covering nose and mouth, as doctors instruct. A man in gray shorts and a Boston Red Sox cap (ahem!) seems to be pulling his mask to his chin as he strides straight at the doctor/photographer. Two men and a woman cross a street with New York purpose and their masks pulled down over their chins. Those two women in front of the hospital banner are wearing their masks to protect their throats.
“I believe if something is simple and it works, use it,” Dr. Popper said. “I am a great believer in the commonweal - given where we are, without any central direction - that we individuals become the firewall.” She dubbed herself the Mask Monitor.
“I Was Criticized”
Popper says she has heard from people all over the country about those who are not wearing masks. “I convinced and educated a lot of people.”
But not everyone. “I was criticized and snarked at several months ago when I began my Mask Monitor of the World role,” she posted on Facebook Saturday. “We Maskers persisted and it is now FACT – we were right from the beginning.”
One acquaintance had a more particular complaint. “She was disturbed. She said, I was shaming people,” Dr. Popper recalled. “That’s not my goal at all.”
Why doesn’t she just stop people and talk to them, instead of taking their picture? “I’ve done that. It doesn’t work. And I don’t want to get hit. It came to me one day. I just wanted to show it.”
So she continues to shoot pictures with her phone, usually in ways that her subjects don’t even notice. She has added a portfolio dubbed “New Yorkers at their best,” which shows people faithfully wearing their masks.
While her photos are all taken on the East Side of Manhattan, they are source material for the most important pubic health argument in the country right now as we struggle to keep coronavirus under control.
At the moment, the tools are limited. It turns out, after some false starts, that one of the most effective tools is to wear a mask. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington recently integrated the effect of wearing masks into its projections of COVID-19 deaths. The difference for the country is stark. Universal adoption of mask-wearing across the United States will save more than 30,000 lives between now and October 1, according to the projections, which are based on data from various communities, including New York, that adopted stringent mask rules.
The projections for New York aren’t as dramatic - about 100 fewer deaths by October 1 if we all wear our masks. But that is because, at the moment, the epidemic is more or less under control here. A vigorous regimen of mask-wearing, handwashing and social distancing, along with a successful system of finding and isolating those who are infected or may have been exposed, is the way we keep it that way until a vaccine or effective treatment arrives
Popper thinks that may be further off than some leaders seem to suggest. Meaning we will need these simple disciplines for some time.
Of those who go barefaced or defy other rules, Popper says: “The part I’m gobsmacked by is why people think they know better than epidemiologists.”
“I believe if something is simple and it works, use it.” Dr. Laura Popper