Archive for the Covid-19 Category

The R in Ireland

Posted in Covid-19 with tags , , , on July 9, 2020 by telescoper

I was playing about with different ways of presenting the Covid-19 data I’ve been collecting here to make the trends clearer. This is what the daily confirmed cases and reported deaths look like if smoothed with a simple 7-day moving average and plotted on a log-linear scale:

This confirms something I’ve suspected over the last couple of weeks: that the number of confirmed cases has been edging upwards. This is not so clear in the raw counts, but is suggested: the smoothing makes this easier to see by reducing the noise and removing any weekend reporting artefacts:

This recent upward trend is consistent with the latest estimates of the basic reproduction number R that suggest it has crept up to around unity.

The number of cases per day remains low and confined to particular clusters. Hopefully contact tracing and isolation will prevent the increase getting out of hand.

It seems about two thirds (15 out of 23) of the new cases are associated with travel, though, so any loosening of restrictions on overseas travel would be very unwise.

The maximum age of any of the new cases reported yesterday is 44 and 77% are under 25. Perhaps its younger people who are less likely to observe social distancing.

I worry a bit that Ireland may be unlocking too quickly and people may be getting a bit complacent about the situation.

This is not over.

Open Contact Tracing

Posted in Covid-19 with tags , , , on July 9, 2020 by telescoper

I was interested to see in the news this week   that Ireland’s Covid-19 contact tracing app has been released and is now available for download. According to the HSE it has been downloaded over a million times in the last few days. I haven’t downloaded it myself (yet) but I probably will.

One of the interesting things about this app is that it cost €850,000 (which is about £760K at today’s exchange rate). The UK’s attempt to produce a similar bit of software has so far cost over £11M for an app that doesn’t exist. It seems a rather similar situation to the £50M paid for ferries that didn’t exist.

“Where has that money gone?”, I hear you ask. The answer is “I don’t know”, but it’s probably been pocketed by friends of Mr Cummings.

But UK residents needn’t fear. Not only is the Irish Covid-19 tracker app free to download and I’m told it also works on the other side of the Irish Sea. Not only that, but  the source code is also freely available on Github.

This app does of course raise genuine concerns about data protection, though perhaps not as great as it would if the data was being handed to friends of Mr Cummings. I was amused yesterday however to see usual conspiracy theorists expressing their fears about what would happen to their data if they downloaded the app on – of all places – Facebook.

 

Getting Back to Work

Posted in Covid-19, Maynooth with tags , , on July 7, 2020 by telescoper

It’s Consultation Day here in Maynooth, which is when students can get some feedback on the exam results released last week and also discuss what they may need to do in terms of repeating assessments next month.

A few minutes ago I took a short break from dealing with such things to make a cup of coffee and I thought I’d provide an update on the processes going on to allow people to return to work. Signs went up on the outside doors to the Science Building last week.

The furniture in the Foyer area has been rearranged to facilitate social distancing…

The Department of Theoretical Physics will be operating a two-way system, with people sticking to the left of the corridors. People came to yesterday to stick the signs on the floor.

Fortunately the corridors in the Department are just about wide enough to maintain social distancing. If people pass each other coming in different directions their encounter will only be transient anyway, which is of low risk.

The computer room (not shown) will have a one-way system so students and staff will enter through one door and leave through the other. We will also have to take half the machines out of use for social distancing purposes, but that should be manageable.

Elsewhere in the Science building in order to avoid people passing each other on the (rather narrow) stairs there is one set for up and another for down.

Social distancing is being enforced in the other facilities too…

That’ll do for now. Time to get back to work.

Excess Deaths due to Coronavirus: Compare and Contrast

Posted in Covid-19, Politics with tags , , on July 3, 2020 by telescoper

I saw an interesting news item this morning about excess deaths registered in Ireland between 11th March and 16th June, the period that brackets the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to the official numbers, 1709 deaths occurred during that time of people who had tested positive for the Coronavirus. During the same period, however,  about about 1100-1200 deaths were registered in excess of the average mortality figures.
One interpretation of this discrepancy is that many of those counted as Covid-19 cases actually died of other causes. Consistent with that interpretation is the fact that over 60% of those deaths were people in care homes, many of whom may have had chronic illness.

Taking 1150 as an estimate of the excess deaths caused by Covid-19 the mortality per million in Ireland drops from 352 to about 237. It must be noted that this figure is still much higher than similar-sized countries such as Denmark and Norway.

The contrast with the United Kingdom is stark. A recent analysis of excess deaths there suggests about 69,000 people have lost their lives directly or indirectly due to Covid-19, which is about 57% higher than the official figure of around 44,000. Taking 69,000 instead of 44,000, the United Kingdom’s mortality rate increases from 647 per million to over a thousand.

I haven’t really been following the reporting in the United Kingdom very closely, because I don’t live there anymore, but the data on new cases found by testing is hopelessly confusing. This, together, with the apparent under-reporting of deaths, may be the reason behind the lax adherence to public health measures over the other side of the Irish Sea.

There is also the fact that daily Covid-19 briefings here in Ireland are led by medical experts, with the politicians taking a back seat (and often not involved at all). These are much more likely to be trusted than politicians, especially those involved in the current Tory government.

Thank you, Tony

Posted in Covid-19 with tags on July 2, 2020 by telescoper

As Ireland’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr Tony Holohan has been constantly in the public eye during the Covid-19 outbreak. At the daily press briefings he has impressed with his authoritative and frank delivery. During this time he has come across not only as a leading health expert, but as a good honest man and a dedicated public servant. His personal qualities have done much to win the confidence of the public in the battle against the Coronavirus.

Today I learnt that throughout this period Dr Holohan had also been caring for his wife, who is very ill with cancer, and their two young children. I have no idea how he managed to carry out his public role, which must have been onerous in itself, so professionally while carrying such a heavy additional burden in private.

Now his wife has gone into palliative care, and he has taken the decision to stand down from his job in order to be with her and their family.

All I can do is add a small voice to the many others saying a heartfelt “thank you” to Dr Tony Holohan for service far beyond the call of duty, and send my best wishes for the challenges ahead.

And so to Phase Three..

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education with tags , , , , on June 29, 2020 by telescoper

Well, Phase Three of the Great Reopening happened has started on schedule. As I walked to campus this morning I saw long queues in the street outside every barber’s shop in Maynooth. I decided to wait a few days before trying to get my long overdue haircut. It’s been over three months now.

Maynooth has quite a lot of barber’s shops for a town of its size. It also has quite a lot of nice restaurants. I noticed this evening that quite a few will be opening this week for sit-down meals rather than takeaway. I wish them well, but I think I’ll be sticking with the takeaways for a while longer.

When I got into the office to start work on the risk assessment I’m supposed to complete so staff can return to work, there was quite a lot of activity in the Science Building, including signs of various kinds being put up.

Some of the signs are bisexual bilingual:

All this reminded me of some lines from the Leonard Cohen song Anthem:

We asked for signs. The signs were sent

……

Signs for all to see.

The arrows will be put on the floor at regular intervals to enforce a one-way system around the building to allow people to circulate without bumping into each other.

I’m also expecting to be issued with tape to be used to mark some of the machines in our computer laboratory out of use, to keep users from sitting too close. I was going to remove the chairs but I don’t have anywhere to out them and we’ll probably – hopefully – need them back sometime!

I started work on the risk assessment but didn’t get it finished. I should be able to complete it tomorrow. Then it needs to be approved. Only after that will staff be able to begin routinely working in the Department. Until then, working from home continues.

Before Phase Three..

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Maynooth with tags , , on June 28, 2020 by telescoper

Tomorrow (on Monday 29th June) Ireland will enter Phase Three of its (accelerated) Roadmap for Reopening after the Covid-19 restrictions.

The Coronavirus situation here remains relatively stable, with new cases steady at a low level:

This is not the case for the rest of the world, however. Yesterday two grim milestones were passed: 10,000,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 worldwide and 500,000 deaths:

Much of the recent numerical growth of the pandemic is associated with North and South America. Brazil is particularly badly affected as are some of the United States. I don’t need to comment on the quality of the political leadership involved.

I am very nervous about the situation in the United Kingdom too, where I feel the reopening is being rushed. Poor leadership is partly responsible for the continuing high levels of infection there too.

Anyway, back to Phase Three in Ireland. Yesterday I bought a copy of the Irish Times and found this booklet inside:

The emphasis is on the fact that despite the low levels in Ireland Covid-19 has not gone away and we all have to be prepared to take special precautions for the foreseeable future. I would be amazed if there wasn’t another flare-up here at some point, actually, it’s just a question of when. And those optimistic about the delivery of a vaccine in the near future, I’ll remind you that there isn’t yet a vaccine for any form of Coronavirus let alone the novel form responsible for Covid-19 (SARS-CoV-2).

Anyway, on Friday I attended a virtual Question and Answer session with the President of Maynooth University, Professor Philip Nolan, about the plans for reopening campus over the Summer and into the new academic year. It is clear that lots will have to be done before staff can return fully and even then it won’t be anything like “normal”.

Incidentally the issue of face masks came up and there was some discussion about their effectiveness. Not being a medical expert I don’t really know about that, but I think one of the important things about masks in a work environment is that their visibility means that they work as a signal to remind people to be aware of Covid-19. I have discarded my home-made face masks and bought a box of proper ones and I intend to wear them whenever I am in a work setting in which anyone else is present.

On Friday evening I finally received (relatively) detailed instructions on how the return to work process will work. The Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University is still basically in Phase 1 while the university working group has been assembling this guidance. It will probably be several more weeks before we can get people back to work because there are many things still to be done: including the installation of hand sanitizers, one-way systems, screens, and new signage.

Another thing that came up during the President’s Q&A was the question of vacations for staff. Fortunately I had muted both my audio and video feeds for this as I laughed out loud. What with organising the return to work, overseeing repeat exams, recruiting a sabbatical replacement, planning teaching for next year, rewriting my own lectures for the “new normal”, etc etc, and (hopefully) moving into a new house, I can’t see any prospect of any summer holiday this year at all!

Scrambled Phases

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Maynooth with tags , , , on June 22, 2020 by telescoper

A couple of weeks ago I posted about the imminent start of Phase 2 of the Irish Government’s Roadmap for Reopening after the closures enforced because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Since then the Irish Government has decided that there will only be four phases instead of five, and many elements of the programme will be moved forward. For example, all travel restrictions within the Republic will be lifted from next Monday (29th June), which is when Phase 3 is due to commence. It has also been announced that hairdressers, barbers, nail and brow salons, beauty salons, spas, make-up application services, tanning, tattooing and piercing services will re-open. I find that surprising, as I find it hard to see how such services can be provided at low risk of transmitting Covid-19.

In fact I find the whole idea of accelerating the Roadmap rather worrying. I hope I’m proved wrong, but it seems to me that the Government is rushing this. There are worrying signs in Germany that the R-number is increasing significantly and undue haste in opening business may lead to a similar rise. It must be stressed that the number of cases involved in Germany  is rather small and most are confined in local outbreaks that can be contained. Nevertheless, this remains a concern.

At the moment the situation looks stable, with new cases at a very low level:

I do worry however that, since only a very small fraction of the population (at most a few percent) have been infected with Covid-19, there will be very little resistance if Covid-19 starts to spread again.

As for my own work situation here at Maynooth University, what happens in Phases Three and Four is all a bit hypothetical, because we’re still stuck in Phase One! The University management is being extremely cautious about allowing anyone back to work at all until various protocols are agreed, risk assessments carried out, and staff training delivered. It seems likely therefore that we will reach Monday’s scheduled start of Phase 3 before we are even ready for Phase 2. In practice, therefore, the various phases of the Roadmap are no longer relevant in this particular setting. I think I’ll remain the only person coming in to the Department for quite some time!

I fully understand and support the careful approach adopted  by the University, of course, and the delay doesn’t matter that much as our teaching semester is now finished and, being theorists, we can all work from  home reasonably effectively. It must be more of a challenge for laboratory-based researchers. My main concern is  I’d be very surprised if all the other organizations and businesses due to open next Monday are as cautious. The last thing we need for people to cut corners and send us all back to square one.

 

Psychological Time

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education with tags , , , on June 21, 2020 by telescoper

So, the Summer Solstice for 2020 is now in the past. It’s all downhill from here!

As the Solstice approached last night I was thinking back to the Vernal Equinox which had happened this year on March 20th, exactly three months before. That was at the end of Study Week in the Spring Semester but the students did not return the following week and we switched to remote teaching. I find it astonishing to think that was just three months ago. It seems like ancient history. Not only that but several major events took place during that period that I find it hard place in chronological order without looking at written records (including this blog).

I am not an expert on such matters but it seems to me that the isolation, disruption of social interaction, and the loss of familiar routines imposed by work are among the things responsible distorting perception of the passage of time. I have tried to impose a regular pattern on my day during this time but only with limited success. I suspect it’s not only me who has felt like this over the past weeks and months!

It’s not just the disruption to routine of course. There was also a genuine fear of becoming infected. My last in-person lecture was on 12th March, the Thursday before Study Week. From time to time I wondered if I would ever see those students again. I also made arrangements to write a will. For a time it looked likely that intensive care facilities in Ireland might be overwhelmed so I felt it important to make contingencies of that sort. Fortunately they weren’t needed. As far as I know the Coronavirus hasn’t reached me. I certainly haven’t had any symptoms, though I haven’t actually been tested.

Overall I found the lockdown very difficult at first but I think adjusted reasonably well despite (or perhaps because of?) having very peculiar dreams.

Now that the Covid-19 restrictions are gradually being wound down hopefully some measure of routine will resume and the sense of disorientation will fade. Time will tell.

Challenges Past and Future

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , , on June 19, 2020 by telescoper

Yesterday afternoon we held our Departmental Examination Board in Theoretical Physics (via Microsoft Teams*) which all went remarkably well in the circumstances.

The most challenging thing to happen yesterday afternoon was that a bloke came to cut back the bushes outside my office with a very large and noisy hedge trimmer. I thought I was going to have to contend with that all afternoon but it seems he had done most of it the day before and only came back yesterday to finish off. He left before the Exam Board started.

The next stage of our Exams process is for all the Departmental results to be collated for those students on joint programmes before the final University Board takes place about ten days from now. After that students will get their results.

That doesn’t quite finish examination matters for 2019/20 however because some students will need to take repeat examinations in August. These will be a week later than usual as a knock-on effect of the extra week we were given to mark and correct the May exams. We anticipate that at least some of the repeats will be the traditional `in person’ on campus style, but some may be online timed assessments like the ones we held in May. That depends a bit on how the Covid-19 pandemic pans out in Ireland over the next few weeks (and of course how many students actually take repeats, as social distancing generates a capacity issue for the examination halls).

At the moment we are optimistic because the number of new cases of Covid-19 is low and stable. That coulld change, of course, if the virus starts to spread again so we have to have contingency plans.

Even more uncertain is what will happen in September, although I have been very annoyed by some reports in the media that seem to have been actively trying to put students off coming to University next academic year on the grounds that there won’t be any lectures. We certainly plan to offer as much face-to-face teaching as possible and I think other third-level institutions in Ireland will do likewise. There will of course have to be a backup if there is another lockdown, which may mean switching back to remote teaching at relatively short notice, but at least we’ve done that once already so know much better now what works and what doesn’t. Nevertheless I would encourage all potential students not to believe everything they read in the media nor be deterred from attending university by rumours from sources who don’t know what they are talking about.

Earlier this week I was starting to think about how we might build the required flexibility into our teaching for next year and two main things struck me.

The first is that while we have more-or-less been forced into making various kinds of video material available to students, this is something that I feel we should have been doing already. I’ve long felt that the more types of teaching we incorporate and the wider range of learning materials we provide the better the chance that students find something that works for them. Even if we do have a full programme of lectures next year, it is my intention to continue to provide, e.g., recorded video explainers as well because they might augment the battery of resources available to the student.

Some time ago I had to make some policies about `reasonable adjustments’ for some disabled students learning physics. In the course of providing extra resources for this small group I suddenly thought that it would be far better, and far more inclusive, simply to make these resources available to everyone. Likewise, we’ve been forced to adjust to providing material remotely but we should be thinking about how to keep the best things about what we’ve done over the last few months and embedding them in the curriculum for the (hopefully Coronavirus-free) future and not regard them all as temporary special measures.

The other thing that struck me is in the same vein, but a little more speculative. Over the last many years I have noticed that students use printed textbooks less and less for learning. Part of that may be because we in a digital age and they prefer to use online resources. The switch to remote learning has however revealed that there are some students who are disadvantaged by not having a good internet connection. I just wonder whether this might lead to a resurgence in the use of textbooks. I’ll certainly be making a strong recommendation to the new first-year students in Theoretical Physics that they should get hold of the recommended text, which I have previously regarded as an optional extra.

*At one point I got muddled up between Teams and Zoom and called it Tombs. It was a grave error, but it can only be a matter of time before Microsoft Tombs actually arrives…