Archive for the Covid-19 Category

The Time of the Pandemic

Posted in Biographical, Books, Talks and Reviews, Covid-19, Science Politics, Talks and Reviews with tags , , , , on May 11, 2022 by telescoper

I’ve posted before about the way the Covid-19 pandemic has played havoc with my perception of the passage of time and today I’ve experienced another example because I was reminded that it was on this day (11th May) last year that I received my first shot of Covid-19 vaccine.

It’s very hard for me to accept that it was just one year ago that I was waiting in City West to get my injection as it seems in my memory further back than that in my memory. It’s not only how long ago things happened, but also even the sequence of events that has become muddled. I wonder how long it will take to restore any normal sense of these things?

Anyway, I’ve just updated the daily statistics on this blog and although case numbers remain relatively high they do seem to be falling steadily and things do seem to be under control in terms of hospital admissions and deaths. Only 254 people are in hospital with Covid-19 today and the trend is downward.

Maybe the time of the pandemic is drawing to a close?

Further evidence that things may be getting back to normal is that I’m giving the first in-person research talk I’ve done since before the pandemic started at the Irish Theoretical Physics Meeting (ITP22) at the end of this month in Dublin (at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, to be precise). I’m looking forward to giving a talk in the same room as real people. I’m even top of the bill (though only thanks to alphabetical order):

I’ve only got a 30-minute slot so I hope my sense of the passage of time returns at least to the extent that I keep to schedule. My PhD student is travelling to Newcastle next week to give her first ever conference talk at the UK Cosmology Meeting. Hers is a 5-minute talk, which is quite a difficult thing to do well, but I have every confidence it will be excellent.

And talking of research, I see that tomorrow sees the public announcement of the results of the 2021 Research Excellence Framework. Universities have had their results since the start of the week but they are embargoed until tomorrow, no doubt to allow PR people to do their work. I’ll probably post a reaction tomorrow, but for now I’ll just send best wishes to colleagues in the UK – especially in Cardiff and Sussex – who are waiting anxiously hoping for a successful outcome and say that I’m very happy to be here in Ireland, out of the path of that particular bureaucratic juggernaut.

Lá Bealtaine

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education on May 1, 2022 by telescoper

Today, 1st May, Beltane (Bealtaine in Irish) is an old Celtic festival that marks the mid-point between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice. The month of May is called Bealtaine in Irish and May Day is called Lá Bealtaine. It’s one of the so-called Cross-Quarter Days that lie halfway between the equinoxes and solstices. These ancient festivals take place earlier in the modern calendar than the astronomical events that represent their origin: for example, the halfway point between the Spring Equinox and Summer Solstice is actually next week.

A consequence of all this is that Monday is a Bank Holiday and, in keeping with tradition, the weather has taken a turn for the worse and it is pouring with rain. Nevertheless  Lá Bealtaine shona daoibh go leir!

On the corresponding days last year and the year before I was wondering about how the pandemic would pan out. Back on May 1st 2020 I didn’t think it would last until May 2021 and back in 2021 I did not forecast that we would still have over a thousand new infections every day in May 2022.  The vaccination programme seems to have done its job though and although case numbers remain high, the number of hospitalizations, ICU admissions and fatalities have not increased as in previous waves.

The Department of Health no longer gives Covid-19 updates at weekends (or on holidays) so here is the chart up to Friday 29th April:

May 1st 2021 was around 410 on the time-axis, with cases and deaths falling:

I hadn’t expected the subsequent increase to much higher levels of infection, but the ratio of deaths to cases is much lower now than it was a year ago despite the lower level of testing now.

It was announced on Friday that the Department of Health is to stop giving daily updates. I don’t know if they’re still going to put daily figures on the data hub (which is where I get them from) but if they don’t I’ll discontinue putting data on my Covid-19 page.

Anyway, yesterday’s open day went ahead without physical distancing though some staff and visitors were wearing masks. It was so busy in the Iontas Building that the hubbub made it difficult to be heard while talking with a mask on so I just dispensed with mine for the duration. Some visitors were wearing theirs though.

After tomorrow’s holiday we have four days left of teaching term then there’s a study week for the students – duyring which I’ll be marking computational projects and other assessments – and then the exams begin. For many students this will be their first on-campus examinations and we’re all a bit nervous about how they will go, but we’ll find out soon enough…

Meanwhile, back to Covid…

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , on April 8, 2022 by telescoper

So here we are, at the end of the 9th teaching week of Semester 2 at Maynooth University. There are three more weeks of lectures before the end of term, either side of a one-week break for Easter.

It was decided weeks ago that we all have to proceed on the basis that the Covid-19 pandemic is all over.

Case numbers are still very high though:

The above picture is a bit misleading because it shows only cases confirmed by PCR tests fewer of which are being done now than previously. The HSE data hub also records daily antigen tests which are typically of the same order but higher than the PCR results. The real level of infection is therefore at least twice the level shown in the picture. That’s the bad news. The good news is that positive results from both PCR and antigen tests do seem to be falling, as do hospitalizations and ICU admissions. The mortality rate has also remained low during this phase of the pandemic. The logical inference is that wall of protection afforded by vaccines is holding despite the high level of infections. We’re clearly in a less dangerous phase of the pandemic than we were last year.

But, equally clearly, the pandemic is not all over.

The number of absences due to illness or self-isolation is high for both staff and students. I’ve noted before on this blog that although third level institutions were put under great pressure to return to on-campus teaching, many students are just not attending lectures, tutorials and laboratories in person.

As well as having to look after their own health, many students haven’t been able to secure local accommodation for this Semester, partly because of a general shortage and partly because the 21/22 academic year started late and in chaotic fashion making it impossible for first years to sort out satisfactory living arrangements. It looks like this will happen next year too.

Third-level education isn’t the only sector feeling significant residual effects of the pandemic, but it is one in which problems have been exacerbated by the unrealistic expectations of Government and University managements.

Anyway, after so much disruption we approach the end-of-year examination period with considerable trepidation. For first- and second-year students these will be the first examinations they have taken on the campus; third-years will not have taken on-campus exams since January 2020. The style of our online examinations was necessarily different to the traditional format so in the Exam Halls the students will find themselves in very unfamiliar territory. In particular, we used “open-book” exams so students could use notes, textbooks and other resources to do the examinations. This won’t be the case in May.

How will the results turn out?

We can only wait and see.

Back from the Break

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Maynooth on March 21, 2022 by telescoper

As well as returning to the Department for the first time after the Study Week break, I’ve also had the chance to update my Covid-19 data page with five days’ worth of numbers after the Bank Holiday and Weekend hiatus. A total of 63,954 positive tests (either antigen or PCR) were reported today.

The latest 7-day rolling average is around 5200 new PCR-confirmed cases per day, but that number is a considerable underestimate because much less PCR testing is being done compared with earlier in the pandemic. Over 10,000 positive antigen tests were logged today (21st March) but not included in the figure below:

The surge expected after the St Patrick’s Day festivities won’t have registered in this plot yet either. Anecdotal evidence is that lots of undergraduate students have been absent from lectures and tutorials on the first day back from the break citing Covid-19 as the reason, and some tutors are also off sick. My first lecture and first laboratory session aren’t until tomorrow though.

As of this morning, 1308 people are in hospital in Ireland with Covid-19, over double the number at the start of the month. Fortunately the number in ICU and the number of deaths remain reasonably low.

It seems there is no intention at Government level to reintroduce public health restrictions so we have to continue teaching as if nothing is wrong. The fact of the matter remains, however, that the much-vaunted “return to campus” hasn’t really been achieved this Semester, with many students staying away from classes either through choice or necessity.

As Head of a small Department that is already short-staffed I am worried about what I’m supposed to do if we suffer absences among those who are teaching. We’ve got six weeks until the end of the Semester. I just hope we get through it without a crisis caused by the high case numbers.

Half Semester Break

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , on March 12, 2022 by telescoper

So we arrive at the start of the mid-Semester study break at Maynooth University. There are no lectures next week, and there are two bank holidays (17th March, St Patrick’s Day, and 18th March, the new holiday announced earlier this year).

I was talking to some students on Thursday and I think they’re all as tired as the staff are. Many have long commutes to and from college because they weren’t able to find local accommodation, some have to work to provide income, and some have been ill with Covid-19 and are still recovering. Some staff are also having to work from home being close contacts of people with Covid-19.

Although the Minister responsible for Higher Education declared that students would return to campus, the reality is not really like that. For the above reasons (and, no doubt, others), attendance at in-person lectures has fallen to very low levels, and from what I’ve heard this is not only in the Department of Theoretical Physics. I don’t know whether it is the case at other universities in Ireland. At least I’m recording my lectures – except when there’s a power cut! – so students who can’t come in can have something to study from.

Ironically, the one module I am teaching that is quite easy to deliver online – Computational Physics – still has good attendance for the laboratory sessions, with only one or two students tuning in remotely.

At the end of this Semester, in May 2022, we have examinations on campus for the first time in two years. For students in the first and second year these will be the first university examinations they have ever taken. I for one am a bit nervous about how things will go given the difficulties facing students up to this point.

But that’s for later. For now we have a break from teaching. I have an assignment ready for my Advanced Electromagnetism students but I decided not to put it up until after Study Week as I think it’s better for them to take a bit of a break before the final six weeks of the Semester. For many in my class this will be the final six weeks of their course so it’s important to approach this period with as much energy as possible.

For myself although I have no teaching next week there are a number of things going on between Monday and Wednesday – including some conferring ceremonies – and I’m behind with quite a lot of things, so I’ll be in the office more-or-less as usual. I’ll be looking forward to a glass of wine or several on Wednesday evening though, ahead of Thursday morning’s St Patrick’s Day parade in Maynooth (weather permitting).

Two Years of Covid in Ireland

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Maynooth with tags , , on February 28, 2022 by telescoper

Trying to find something other than the conflict in Ukraine to write about, I thought I’d do a quick post to mark that we have reached the two year mark since the first “official” case of Covid-19 in Ireland was detected. It seems so long ago that I had forgotten that 2020 was a leap year and the date was 29th February, and the case was reported a day later on 1st March 2020.

It was to be another couple of weeks before we went into the first lockdown and I didn’t start keeping a log of all the cases and deaths until 27th March 2020, but you will find a complete record here (backdated to the date of the first case).

Here is the latest plot, with data complete up to today:

Today is the day that most Covid related restrictions are lifted. There is no longer a legal requirement to wear masks anywhere other than in healthcare settings, though at my University there is a recommendation to do so. I dropped into Dunnes this morning to buy a sandwich to have for lunch and I’d say a slight majority of shoppers (including myself) were still wearing masks, though all the staff I saw were unmasked (a fact which I found very disappointing).

I intend to carry on wearing a face covering in shops and, of course, in classrooms (and especially in labs) for the foreseeable future. I didn’t have any teaching this morning so I don’t know what the students are doing. We are told that if a student refuses to wear a mask then lecturers can’t make them, but peer pressure may do the job for us. We do have a significant number of students off and teaching staff unavailable due to Covid-19 infection but we just have to manage this as best we can.

The requirement to have a PCR test if you are symptomatic has also lapsed for most people in Ireland, but not for me. As I’m over the age of 55 I am still required to take a test if I have symptoms.

The drastic reduction in testing implied by the change in regulations will undoubtedly lead to a steep reduction in PCR-confirmed cases (currently running at a seven-day average of around 3500 per day) and in the light of this I’m not sure it’s worth carrying on plotting the data for much longer. I will persevere for the mean time though.

They think it’s all over…

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth on February 18, 2022 by telescoper

This afternoon it was announced that the Government of Ireland would be accepting the latest advice from the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) to wind down most of the remaining Covid-19 restrictions from 28th February 2002. The first officially recognized Covid-19 case in Ireland was reported on March 1st 2020, so that will be two years after the arrival of the pandemic here.

The decision means that face masks will no longer be required on public transport or in shops or in schools, though they will be mandatory in hospitals and other health-care settings. I assume this extends to universities too. Likewise limits on social distancing. The Chief Medical Officer has also announced that PCR testing will no longer be performed for anyone under the age of 55. It seems that even NPHET itself is to be phased out.

I know many people will be celebrating the end of these restrictions, but in case you need reminding here are the latest figures for Covid-19 in Ireland:

PCR-confirmed new cases are still running at 4500+ per day (almost double that if you include self-reported antigen tests). That means medically vulnerable people would be at risk of infection if those around them are not wearing masks. Masks protect others more than they protect the wearer so allowing the wearing of face masks to be discretionary puts such people in danger. For this reason I for one will be continuing to wear a face covering in shops, on buses, etc for the foreseeable future.

I don’t mind this – it was widespread practice in Asia long before the Coronavirus pandemic – and just can’t understand the extreme anti-maskers who liken the wearing of a face covering to being put in a concentration camp. I just hope we don’t get situations in which those who choose to wear a mask on, say, a bus get picked on by those who don’t.

At the moment in the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth the situation is that a significant fraction of our students are staying away from lectures because of illness or self-isolation and one lecturer is having to do his teaching remotely. That’s not too bad; I feared much worse. I think other Departments have worse problems, missing demonstrators and tutors who are unable to come on campus.

The logic behind scrapping these restrictions is that despite the high case numbers the vaccination programme (helped, perhaps by the ‘milder’ omicron variant) does seem to have succeeded in keeping hospitalizations and deaths at a much lower level than in previous waves. Implicitly the strategy is to let Covid-19 wash over the population without worrying that the Health Service will be overwhelmed. My main worry now is what if another variant emerges after we have let our guard down?

Particle Physics Masterclass at Maynooth

Posted in Covid-19, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff on February 9, 2022 by telescoper

You may remember that we ran a very successful virtual Astrophysics & Cosmology Masterclass at Maynooth University last November. Now it’s time to announce the forthcoming International Masterclass on Particle Physics. This will take place on campus at Maynooth during the half-term break:

 

You can find more information, including instructions on how to book a place, here. The first such Masterclass at Maynooth took place in March 2012, so this year we will be celebrating the 10th anniversary.

These Masterclasses give secondary school students the opportunity to discover the world of quarks and leptons for themselves, by performing measurements on real data from CERN, meeting active particle physics researchers and linking up with like-minded students from other countries.  We will join thousands of other secondary school students at more than 100 universities and laboratories around Europe and worldwide in a programme stretching over four weeks.

Physics at the most fundamental level – the smallest and most basic building blocks of matter – is an exotic world.  But a few introductory talks and working with data from CERN will give the students insight into the fundamental particles of matter and the forces between them, as well as what went on during the Big Bang.

On Sunday afternoon, the students are introduced to particle physics, experiments and detectors in lectures given by active particle physics researchers.  On Monday, after a virtual visit to the ALICE detector at CERN, they work on their own with data from ALICE Afterwards they participate in a video conference with students from other countries and moderators at CERN, where they discuss and compare their results.

For more information on the Particle Physics Masterclasses, see the International Masterclasses web site.

Leaving Certificate Matters

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags on February 4, 2022 by telescoper

On the last day of a very busy first week of the new term I’ve finally cleared a backlog of things and thought I’d take a break for a quick comment about the arrangements for this year’s Leaving Certificate which has implications for this year’s University admissions (amongst many other things).

It has been decided that this year’s Leaving Certificate will revert to the pre-pandemic style of written examinations, but with the important proviso that the overall distribution of marks will be scaled to be no lower than the results last year (when accredited grades were taken into account). In addition the examinations will offer students more choice, so that they have to answer a smaller subset of the questions than in the good old days before Covid.

Last year’s Leaving Certificate results revealed a big increase in scores and consequent changes in offers for many courses. For example, the points required for our Theoretical Physics and Mathematics course (MH206) at Maynooth University went up by about 50 to around 550. Perhaps surprisingly this resulted in the admissions to this course going up by about a factor three. I won’t speculate on the reasons for this here.

The reason for scaling this year’s results is to ensure that students entering third-level education this year are not disadvantaged relative to those who left school last year and took a year out. Also, there is much less information on which to base accredited grades, because of pandemic interruptions.

My concern about the announcement is not so much about the return to formal examinations but on the matter of choice. Take Mathematics for instance. Instead of answering questions in each of 10 sections, students this year will only have to answer questions from six. That means that students can get very high grades despite knowing nothing about 40% of the syllabus. That matters most for subjects that require students to have certain skills and knowledge for entry into University.

In my own discipline (physics) we already have to get new students rapidly up to speed in, e.g., calculus – a difficulty exacerbated this year by the fact that the first Semester was shortened as a knock-on effect of delays in Leaving Certificate process – this is likely also to be a problem for next year’s entry. I can see we’re going to have to do a lot of thinking over the summer about how to deal with this.

Overall I prefer the Leaving Certificate over the UK system of A-levels, as the former gives the students a broader range of subjects than the latter (as does the International Baccalaureate), but I still have doubts about using a simple points count for determining entry into third-level education. Changing a system so deeply embedded is likely to prove difficult, though, so we for the foreseeable future we just have to make the best of what we’ve got.

All Change for Semester Two!

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on January 31, 2022 by telescoper

So here we are, then, at the start of Semester Two at Maynooth University. When I arrived in the Department of Theoretical Physics I noticed a few differences:

August 2020 versus January 2022

All the signage relating to physical distancing has been removed. We are no longer required to observe 2m spacing between individuals in labs or anywhere else. That solves my potential problem about constraints in the Computational Physics lab (to the left of the picture).

Our little kitchen is also now back in operation so we can share that space for lunch or coffee, sitting around the table which has now been put back in place. Staff meetings can be held in person, though the meeting of Academic Council I have to attend this afternoon will still be via Teams. I don’t actually start teaching until tomorrow and will be in the office most of the day so will have to wait until tomorrow until I find out how busy the campus seems; we expect there to be more students around than last term.

Students are still to wear face coverings in lectures etc but other than that all restrictions seem to have gone, including those on eating and social spaces on campus. Everyone seems to have decided that this pandemic is all over. Only time – and perhaps the next coronavirus variant – will tell whether they are right.