Archive for the Covid-19 Category

Meanwhile, back at Covid…

Posted in Covid-19, Maynooth, Politics with tags , on July 6, 2022 by telescoper

While the Tory Government on the other side of the Irish Sea appears to be collapsing I’ve trying not to laugh too loud so have distracted myself by updating my Covid-19 page with the latest data for Ireland. The summary figure is this:

You can see that cases (blue curve) are still rising (up 5.8% on last week) but the increase may just be slowing. I only show PCR-confirmed tests so interpretation of these is complicated by the lack of general PCR testing. The testing positivity rate is 38.5% and there are many more positive antigen tests not confirmed by PCR. There are now over 900 people in hospital with Covid-19 and 37 in intensive care. The mortality rate (orange curve) however remains steady.

I’m a bit concerned that case numbers are so high, especially as there are so few people taking precautions. I know this is purely anecdotal but I do know several people in Maynooth who have come down with fairly nasty doses of Covid-19 in recent weeks. I also know of many people who have travelled to conferences for the first time in a couple of years only to come down with Covid-19 in the process. The high incidence of Covid-19 is causing staff absences elsewhere that are disrupting many organizations and businesses. I do hope we’re not in for another surge before the start of term in September!

Despite all this (and the fact that I have been fairly lax about wearing a face covering myself) I still have not experienced Covid-19. I’ve never had symptoms and never tested positive. Have I just been lucky, or is there more to it than that?

Concerning Covid Immunity

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Maynooth with tags , , , on June 10, 2022 by telescoper

Over the past few weeks I’ve attended a number of events at which most people were not wearing face coverings, including a recent Open Day at which I took my mask off in order to be heard in a very crowded space. Although I still wear a mask on public transport and in shops, most people now do not.

The first thing I’d note is that that there has been a clear upturn in reported Covid-19 cases, with figures now running at about 700 per day:

(Official figures for Ireland are only issued weekly these days…)

It’s not an alarming increase but hospitalizations and testing positivity are also increasing, though the mortality rate remains low because of the protection afforded by vaccines. Incidentally, it was a year ago on Wednesday (8th June) that I received my second Pfizer dose. One wonders how long vaccine protection will last, though, until further boosters are needed. If cases continue to rise I wonder if any measures will be put in place before the start of next academic year?

A number of my colleagues at home and abroad have attended scientific conferences recently, a number of which have led to mini-outbreaks and some instances of quite serious illness. Although most people seem to think Covid has gone away, it clearly hasn’t. A resurgence is all we need right now.

Anyway, one of my colleagues at work expressed surprise that I didn’t catch Covid during the largely unmasked Open Day at the end of April. Of course I might have done but I certainly didn’t display any symptoms. I’ve actually been quite surprised that I have never shown any sign of SARS-Cov2 at all during the entire period of the pandemic, while many of my colleagues and students in the Department have come down with it.

Coincidentally, a comment appeared yesterday on a blog post I wrote a while ago in which I revealed that I have the  CCR5-Δ32 genetic mutation which confers protection against HIV infection. As a matter of fact I have it twice (i.e. homozygotic). For one thing the commenter pointed out that this mutation may have protected against smallpox, which means some evolutionary selection may have been involved in its propagation. The commenter also drew attention to the evidence – by no means conclusive at this stage – that this mutation may also protect against Covid-19. If you’re interested here are links to some papers:

The last of these is a preprint but the other two are peer-reviewed publications.

Could it be that I’ve yet again been a jammy bastard and inherited immunity to Covid-19 too?

On Board for Examinations

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth on June 2, 2022 by telescoper

We’ve at last managed to finish marking and collating examination scripts, coursework and project reports of various types and the provisional results are all uploaded to the system. I have to say that marking examinations on paper is much less of a chore than doing digital submissions online, though it is still not exactly a simple task and I’m glad it’s over for another year.

Tomorrow morning we’ll have a relatively informal “Pre-Board” meeting to go double-check the results and discuss any isues arising before the full Departmental Examination Board which takes place next week. That’s just for the Department of Theoretical Physics but we also do teaching for the Department of Engineering and there are Pre-Boards and Full Boards for those too.

In between now and the Full Boards we have a Bank Holiday weekend. Not the extravaganza going on over the Irish Sea concerning the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, just the regular Lá Saoire i mí Mheitheamh we have every year. In any case, there’s more than one old Queen having a celebration this weekend. A nice thing about living in Ireland is that my birthday is always in close proximity to a national holiday.

But I digress.

The Departmental Examination Boards do not quite mark the end of the examinations business for the academic year, as we have the Final Final Examination Board after all the Departmental ones.  That is when marks from all Departments come together to determine the final results for students who are taking degrees in combinations of subjects. The Department of Theoretical Physics has quite a number of students doing Joint Honours with Mathematics, for example, and we don’t won’t know their final results until we see how their Mathematics has gone. It does add an extra level to the process, but I think that’s a price worth paying for the flexibility we offer to students through joint programmes.

This final Examination Board takes place on 22nd June and students will get their marks a couple of days later on 24th June. We have an official Consultation Day (28th June) the following week during which students can get feedback on their examinations as well as discussing options for choices to be made ahead of next year. Even that won’t be the end, because some students will be taking repeat examinations in August, but at least it signals a gap in the assessment cycle during which we can hopefully think of other things for a while.

This year has been challenging, to say the least. There was a piece in the Irish Times recently discussing concerns about lack of student engagement, poor lecture attendance and high dropout rates for students in Irish universities. I discussed some of the reasons for this here. Obviously, until our results are finalized I can’t say anything specific about the impact of all these difficulties on our students, but the post-Covid turmoil undoubtedly has had a significant impact on many students and a severe impact on some. It remains to be seen precisely what the scale of the problem is and what we can do to mitigate it.

The general turbulence in the wake of the pandemic, which is unavoidable, has been exacerbated in my Department by serious staffing issues resulting from deliberate management decisions. This combination has created a perfect storm which in my view could easily have been avoided. I shall refrain from commenting further, except to say that it will take some time to sort out and we’ll probably have similar – though hopefully less severe – issues next year.

One of the difficulties faced by students this summer is that they would not have done traditional written examinations for two years before this May’s set. The online timed assessments we deployed during the pandemic were of “open-book” style but the unseen written papers on campus are not. The challenge posed by these two types of examination are different, and it remains to be seen how well the students – especially those in Years 1 and 2 – have coped with the abrupt switch. Those who get disappointing results will have the opportunity to take repeat examinations (on campus) and those who disengaged entirely will have the chance to repeat the year in full if they so desire, so all is not lost!

Another sign of our gradual emergence from the pandemic is that our Examination Board meeting next week will be attended in person by the External Examiner. She wasn’t able to get here last year owing to  illness so it will be nice to have her present at the Exam Boards and, hopefully, at dinner afterwards.

 

 

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?