Archive for the Covid-19 Category

Spring Return

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth on April 12, 2021 by telescoper

After a few days off last week following the Easter Bank Holiday weekend it’s time to get back into the swing of things for the four weeks of teaching term that remain. It’s back to school today for all school students in Ireland too, so good luck to them on their first day in the classroom since Christmas!

As well as (remote) lectures the next four weeks will involve us getting our papers ready for the examination period which starts on 14th May this year. All our examinations will be remote online timed assessments (as indeed they were last year). I’ve been teaching three modules this Semester so have no fewer than six examinations to write: three main exams plus three repeat papers for the resit period in August. The decision has already been made to make all the repeat exams online so at least these will be of similar style to the original May versions.

Then it will be marking and Exam Boards and various other things heading into the summer break. Hopefully I will get some holiday this summer as I didn’t get any at all last year. On the other hand there’s a strong likelihood that Senior Management will think of something else for Heads of Department to do that will make this impossible.

What happens at the end of summer all depends on Covid-19 of course, and specifically how Ireland’s vaccination programme goes. My personal opinion is that we should continue with remote teaching until all staff and students have had their jabs, which is unlikely to be the case before September at the current rate, but you never know. The speed of vaccination shows signs of increasing though, so we might be able to do it.

Despite the more rapid progress with immunisation over the other side of the Irish Sea, UK university bosses are apparently complaining that they haven’t got a date for returning to campus. This surprises me as they run on roughly the same calendar as here in Ireland so there are only a few weeks of teaching left there too. Why bother to go back at such a late stage? Unless of course it’s so they can charge students for a full term’s accommodation…

 

On Vaccination in Ireland

Posted in Covid-19 with tags , , , on March 31, 2021 by telescoper

Following from my weekend post about issues with Covid19 vaccination, which seems to have ruffled a few feathers, I thought I’d just mention a couple of recent developments.

The first is that on Tuesday (yesterday) the Irish Government decided to change the way it vaccinates the rest of the population. The previous plan was rather complicated with a number of groups to be vaccinated in order of priority:

That plan has now been scrapped and after the current groups 1-3 are completed it will revert to a simpler scheme with priority determined only by age. As an oldie I will benefit from this, moving up several steps in the pecking order as a consequence of the decision.

Frontline workers such as teachers and Gardaí are dismayed by this decision. On the news just now various folk were trying to argue that the change is for health policy reasons, stating that the prime factor in risk for Covid-19 is age. Actually, it isn’t. The prime factor is exposure to the virus.

What I mean is that the probability of dying from Covid-19 if you haven’t been infected is zero: 100% of those suffering death or serious illness from Covid-19 have been in contact with the virus. Someone who is 60 years old but able to work effectively at home at far lower risk of exposure than a 35 year old schoolteacher.

The real reason for the change is that Ireland does not possess a system that can be used identify groups by occupation in an efficient way. Doing it by age is far simpler and would lead to a much more rapid rise in the fraction of the population immunized. Sometimes decisions have to be made for such practical reasons, but I do wish certain people were more honest.

The slow rollout of the vaccine in Ireland should have provided the Government to work out how to implement their original strategy. Obviously they decided that they couldn’t.

Anyway, for myself, I am pleased that it now looks quite likely that I’ll get at least one jab by May. Assuming the vaccine supply holds up, of course.

I thought I’d end with a thought following on from my earlier post. Some people will ask whether I would have the AstraZeneca vaccine given my views about the company’s behaviour and the lower efficacy of the vaccine as compared to others available.

I think there are two motivations for getting vaccinated. One is self-preservation. I want to protect myself as much as possible. If I had the choice of vaccine for this reason I would pick Moderna or Pfizer-BioNtech but would accept AZ if that was the only one available. As things stand, over 75% of doses administered in Ireland have been Pfizer-BioNtech,

The other motivation is to help reduce the transmission of the disease. For that even a low efficacy vaccine would play a part. If the only shot available offered just 50% protection I would still take it, as if everyone did so the population dynamics would still be significantly slowed.

It’s a similar thing with face masks, actually. Their role is only partly to protect the wearer. The other part is to protect everyone else.

So on both grounds, yes I would take the AZ vaccine if that was the only one on offer, but if I had the choice I would pick a better one. I feel the same way about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which will start to become available in Ireland very soon.

Per Ardua ad AstraZeneca

Posted in Covid-19 with tags , , on March 28, 2021 by telescoper

The extent to which AstraZeneca’s dishonesty concerning its purchasing agreement with the EU is becoming clearer, and the company is increasingly engulfed by a PR disaster resulting from this and misleading claims about the efficacy of its Covid-19 vaccine (see here, here, here, etc). Perhaps they will now get their finger out and actually honour their contract?

Here in Ireland there is expected to be a delivery of “large volume” of doses of the Astra Zeneca vaccine next week, though I doubt it will be as large as their contractual obligations specify. We’ll see what actually happens. There isn’t much confidence in AstraZeneca around these parts I can tell you.

This morning the Covid-19 tracker app for Ireland was updated with the latest vaccination figures for Ireland (25th March) which are as follows:

  • First doses: 548,945
  • Second doses: 211,223
  • Total: 760,168

That is definitely speeding up, which is welcome. Not as fast as the UK, of course, who have been the beneficiaries of 21 million doses exported by the EU. That’s about 2/3 of the total shots administered there. The number exported from the UK to the EU is zero. Nada. Zilch. The same is true of the USA. There’s no doubt in my mind who the bad guys are.

Anyway, not to dwell on that issue I was wondering when I might get around to having a jab myself. I am not particularly high in the pecking order, but from April onwards Ireland is supposed to receive about a million doses per month. Assuming that this actually happens, and AstraZeneca doesn’t crap out yet again, I estimate they should get to me in May (2021).

Another question that occurred to me, given that under-18s are not given the current vaccines – is how many doses are needed to vaccinate the adult population of Ireland. The total population of Ireland is about 5 million but that includes quite a large number of children. Looking at the 2016 census I see that the number of people living in Ireland who are under the age of 18 is about 1.25 million. That means to fully vaccinate the entire adult population will take about 7.5 million doses. Currently about 14.6% of the adult population have received one dose, and about 5.6% have received two. We probably won’t get to anything like full vaccination of the adult population until the autumn.

Let me just correct yet another misunderstanding often presented in the UK press concerning unused vaccines. The number of doses imported to Ireland currently exceeds the number administered by over 100,000, but that does not mean that these vaccines have been refused or wasted. Because the vaccination programme here follows the manufacturers’ guidelines, and because the supplies have been unreliable (especially from AstraZeneca), there is a buffer to ensure that a second dose will always be available on the necessary timescale for anyone who has been given the first. That means that at any time there will always be some doses in storage. It wouldn’t be necessary to do this if we could trust the delivery schedule, but there you go.

I wouldn’t be too worried about the slowish pace of vaccination were it not for the fact that new Covid-19 cases in the Republic are on the way up again:

The demographic for these new cases is quite young (a median age of 32 yesterday) and the increase almost certainly arises from lax adherence to the restrictions by a subset of the population. The relatively young age distribution and the fact that those at greatest risk of death or serious illness are being vaccinated should mean that the mortality figures remain low even as cases rise. Although the increase in new cases is worrying it is nowhere near as bad in Ireland as on the Continent of Europe and elsewhere around the world (especially Brazil). More worrying still is the likelihood of vaccine-resistant strains arising through mutation. Indeed there is already some evidence that the AstraZeneca vaccine is not as effective against the B.1.351 South African variant, although this has been disputed. Let’s hope that all the AstraZeneca doses administered so far don’t turn out to be useless.

It seems to me that it’s very likely that in order to deal with variants we’ll be having regular (perhaps annual) updated vaccine shots for the foreseeable future, as the only way to stop mutations happening is to immunize a large fraction of the world’s population and that will take a considerable time.

A Year of Closure

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth, Mental Health with tags , on March 12, 2021 by telescoper

Today is 12th March 2021, which means it is exactly one year since Maynooth University campus closed because of Covid-19. Last year 12th March was on a Thursday and I remember doing my Computational Physics lecture in the morning and a computer lab in the afternoon and then hearing we couldn’t go back to teaching the following day. After that, as it is this year, it was the Study Week break (which includes the St Patrick’s Day holiday). Last year we all trued to use the opportunity to move all our teaching online.

I certainly didn’t imagine that a full year later we would still be working from home. Although the current lockdown isn’t as strict as that of last Spring we’re still told not to come on campus unless it is strictly necessary, and all teaching remains online.

When the campus closed last year I was living in a small flat with no internet connection, so the only way I could do my teaching was using my mobile phone data. It wasn’t great but I did the best I could.

At least I was able to use the semi-unlocking of the lockdown in late summer to complete the purchase of a house. I’ve been much more comfortable doing teaching from here for the last six months or so, although not leaving the house except to do shopping has led to an extreme sense of isolation which is not all ameliorated by endless online meetings via Zoom and Teams. That, together with the heavy workload, is all very wearying. It further annoys me how many people think “working from home” means not “working very much” or not “working at all”. What it does mean is never getting away from your work, except when you’re asleep.

I’ve noticed over the last few months that the agoraphobia from which I’ve suffered sporadically over the years has very definitely returned. Agoraphobia can be defined as:

…an anxiety disorder characterized by symptoms of anxiety in situations where the person perceives their environment to be unsafe with no easy way to escape. These situations can include open spaces, public transit, shopping centers, or simply being outside their home.

My long-term agoraphobia has been about the threat of physical violence caused by a traumatic event in the past, but now it is more general. I see too many people not taking proper precautions (face masks, social distancing, etc) that it gets me very anxious for a new reason. Supermarkets are bad enough, but it’s more general. I’m now starting to realize that I’m going to find it difficult ever to return to a “normal” life of crowded lecture theatres and campus buildings after this pandemic ends, whenever that happens.

This morning I did a tutorial (via Teams) which was my last teaching session before the mid-term break. I was exhausted even before term started so it has been a very difficult six weeks. It’s not just the teaching, it’s also the relentless stream of demands from upstairs for other things to be done. There seems very little understanding from that direction of what life is like on the front line, to be honest.

My appointment as Head of Department for Theoretical Physics was nominally three years. I am now about halfway through that term and can’t wait for it to end.

Unfortunately there isn’t much light at the end of the Covid-19 tunnel. Case numbers in Ireland remain high, and are falling slowly at best; they have actually been increasing for the last few days. Vaccination rollout is also very slow, thanks to supply issues (chiefly with AstraZeneca).

I am now fairly confident that teaching at least for the Autumn Semester of 2021/22 will again be online, as there is little chance of staff being vaccinated by the end of the summer. I know colleagues in other Irish universities who are planning for this eventuality too.

A Year of Covid-19 in Ireland

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Maynooth, Politics with tags , , on February 28, 2021 by telescoper

Last night I was updating my Covid-19 statistics and plotting new graphs (which I do every day – the results are here) when I noticed that I now have 365 data points. The first officially recorded case of Covid-19 in Ireland was dated 29th February 2020 (although there is evidence of cases in Ireland before that, including one of community transmission). I can’t actually mark the anniversary of that date exactly – for obvious reasons – but it seems a good point to look at what has happened. I didn’t actually start doing a daily update until 22nd March when we were all in the first lockdown but there were relatively few cases in the intervening time and it was possible quite easily to fill in the earlier data.

Little did I know that I would be doing an update every day for a year!

Anyway, here are today’s plots:

 

On a linear y-axis the cases look like this:

 

The numbers for deaths on a linear scale look like this:

 

The recent trend is for a slow decline in new cases, hospitalizations, ICU referrals and testing positivity rates which is all good news. The rate of vaccination- severely limited by supply issues – is starting to increase and from April to June is expected to reach a million a month and then two million a month thereafter. There is therefore some grounds for optimism that a significant fraction of the population will be immunized by the end of the summer, assuming the supply ramps up as expected and there are no more dirty tricks from certain pharmaceutical companies.

Comparing with the situations elsewhere I’d say that Ireland has in broad terms handled the pandemic quite well: worse than some (especially Scandinavian countries) but better than many. It does seem to me that there have been three serious errors:

  1. There has never been – and still isn’t – any sensible plan for imposing quarantine on arrivals into Ireland. A year on one is being put in place but it is simply ridiculous that an island like Ireland failed to do this earlier.
  2. Those lockdown measures that have been imposed have been very weakly enforced, and have often been accompanied by confused messaging from the Government, with the result that a significant minority of people have simply ignored the restrictions. The majority of the population has complied but the others that haven’t have kept the virus in circulation at a high level: the current daily rate of new cases is 650-700, which is far too high, and is declining only slowly.
  3. Finally, and probably the biggest mistake of all, was to relax restriction for the Christmas holiday. The huge spike in infections and deaths in January and February is a direct result of this catastrophic decision for which the Government is entirely culpable.

The situation in the United Kingdom with regard to 3 was even worse:

The excess mortality from January is a direct consequence of Boris Johnson “saving Christmas”. The difference in area under the two curves tells you precisely how many people he killed. I hope politicians on both sides of the Irish Sea are one day held to account for their negligence.

As for myself, I am reasonably optimistic for the future, and not just because Spring appears to have arrived. I have found the Covid-19 restrictions very irksome but I am fortunate to be in a position to cope with them reasonably well, especially now that I have my own house with a garden in a nice quiet neighbourhood.

It has been very hard work doing everything online, and it’s essential to take a break from the screen from time to time, but the upside of that is that by keeping busy you avoid becoming bored and frustrated. One thing that does annoy me though is the number of people who thinking that “working from home” means “not working at all”. I’m sure there are many others, especially in the education sector, who will agree with me!

Although I have coped reasonably well in a personal sense I still very much want to get back to campus to resume face-to-face teaching. I like talking to students and find teaching much more rewarding when there is a response. Moreover, since we’re now going to be off campus until the end of this academic year, that means that a second cohort of students will complete their degrees and graduate this summer without their lecturers being there to congratulate them in person and give them a proper sendoff into the big wide world. I find that very sad.

Anyway, tomorrow we start week 5 of the Semester, which means 4 weeks have passed. That means there are two weeks before the Study Break, the halfway point of teaching term, and we are one-third of the way through the semester. Life goes on.

A Year of Covid-19 in Maynooth

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Maynooth with tags , on February 22, 2021 by telescoper

One useful thing about having a blog is that I can look through my back catalogue of posts quite easily to remind me exactly when things happened. Doing that over the weeked I discovered that it was exactly a year ago today that I travelled from Maynooth into Dublin to see a production of Fidelio. That was a few weeks before Covid-19 related travel restrictions were introduced. I was planning to fly to Cardiff in March but couldn’t do so because of the collapse of FlyBe.

And so it came to pass that I now haven’t left Maynooth for an entire year. I have of course moved house, but only by a few hundred yards. I have spent 12 months entirely within a 5km radius.

The only time I’ve (accidentally) broken the rules was when, during a walk up the Moyglare Road, I accidentally strayed into County Meath. Travel across county boundaries is verboten, you see. The County boundary is shown on the map, to the North of the town, and is closer than I had thought.

Anyway, it looks as I’m going to have a 5km horizon for some time to come. The state of play with Covid-19 as of yesterday isn’t particularly promising. Case numbers and hospitalizations are falling, but very slowly.

The reduction in new cases is only around 15 per day on average and at the current level of around 800 that’s far too high to be even thinking about opening up again.

Why is this reduction so slow? The answer to that question is fairly obvious: far too many people are flouting the existing rules. I have hardly been outside the house since Christmas, mainly to follow the health advice, but also partly because it annoys me to see so many people out and about ignoring social distancing, face coverings, and the rest. The sad thing is that by not taking responsibility now, these people are ensuring that this wretched pandemic lasts even longer.

Ireland’s vaccination programme is going steadily with over 100,000 fully vaccinated and twice that number having received one dose.

Note the considerable variation in vaccination progress across the different countries*. Denmark is top of the heap, probably because it has a fully computerised nationwide health system. Things would obviously be going faster had one of the major suppliers not decided to renege on its contract with the EU but, despite the sharp practice from AstraZeneca, there is expected to be a big increase in vaccines available from April onwards, with about three million doses available between April and June.

*The UK has adopted a different strategy from most others, by giving one dose to as many as possible as quickly as possible by delaying the second dose. This may turn out to be an effective approach. I’m not sufficiently expert to comment.

Today is the start of week 4 of Semester Two of the academic year at Maynooth University. That means we have three weeks to go until the mid-term study break (which was when the first lockdown began last year). Halfway to halfway through the Semester, in other words.

The way things are going I think I’ll be remaining within the 5km horizon until June at the earliest, and probably until September, assuming I’m not carted off to an institution before then.

The Return to Schools in Ireland – The Facts

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Politics on February 20, 2021 by telescoper

There is some confusion going around about precisely when schools will reopen in the Republic of Ireland. In order to provide a service to the community I therefore thought I would summarize the main points here as clearly, concisely and coherently as possible.

At Primary schools, Junior infants or perhaps Junior and Senior infants and perhaps also including First and Second Class will return either separately or together on either 1st March or possibly 8th March. All other pupils will definitely return on 15th March or possibly a week or two weeks later but definitely by three weeks later than that unless there’s a change of plan.

At Secondary schools, the Junior Cycle will continue as normal apart from not actually happening: the Junior Certificate will be replaced by a voucher to spend on computer games. The Senior Cycle will return at the same time as Primary Schools, or at some different time depending on the circumstances, or perhaps just for the day before the Leaving Certificate examinations. Pupils will be able to choose either to take the examination or to receive a grade based on all the coursework they haven’t done because the schools have been closed or to receive a grade based on how much their parents can afford to pay. Leaving Certificate examinations will take place according to the published timetable unless they’re cancelled at the last minute.

Transition Year students have been completely forgotten but no doubt somebody will think of something when they remember.

I hope this clarifies the situation.

Norma Foley is 51.

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Goin’ Down Slow – Archie Shepp & Horace Parlan

Posted in Covid-19, Jazz with tags , , , , , on February 7, 2021 by telescoper

I just updated my Coronavirus page with the days statistics for Ireland (1024 new cases, 12 deaths). We’re obviously well past the Christmas peak but cases are falling very slowly. At this rate we’ll still have several hundred a day by the end of February (which, incidentally will be a year since the first Covid-19 case was recorded in Ireland).

Unlocking with case levels in the hundreds before Christmas was a disaster and I sincerely hope there’s no repeat of that foolishness.

Anyway, the current state of play remind me of this track from a great album called Trouble in Mind which I bought as a vinyl LP about 40 years ago. It’s by Archie Shepp (tenor sax) and Horace Parlan (Piano). Both made their reputations as avant garde jazz musicians but in this album they went back to the roots and explored the classic blues repertoire. Goin’ Down Slow dates back to 1941 and it’s a standard 12-bar blues (usually performed in B♭). Horace Parlan passed away in 2017, but Archie Shepp is still going strong.

 

Teaching from Home

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth on February 3, 2021 by telescoper

Determined to follow the public health advice and work from home I decided to set up a blackboard in my study so I can do lectures online. I find the blackboard shows up better on camera than a whiteboard and using this arrangement allows me to stand up while I deliver the material, which I find much more comfortable than sitting down.

I’m fortunate of course in having enough space to do this. Not every University lecturer can do this.

The bit you see on the board was the start of my second Engineering Mathematics lecture to first-year students. I had asked the students at the end of Lecture 1 to think about the Laplace Transform of f(t)=t and began Lecture 2 by going through the necessary integration on the board.

Today I have three lectures – another Engineering Maths and two Advanced Electromagnetism to give so the board will be more extensively used. I just hope my internet connection stays up!

P. S. Playing back today’s videos I have discovered an optical defect in the Panopto system that makes my hair look grey.

P.P.S. Three lectures in an afternoon (12-1, 2-3 and 4-5) is quite hard work but at least I had breaks between them!

The Term Ahead

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , on January 28, 2021 by telescoper

After a recent Government announcement that current Covid-19 restrictions would be extended until at least March 5th, this morning we received the expected communication from the University authorities that almost all our teaching at Maynooth University would be online until March 22nd at the earliest. This is because the half-term “study break” is from 15th to 19th March (to include St Patrick’s Day) and there would be no point in trying to get students back for one week (8th-12th March) before breaking up for the following week. In fact, if I had to bet money on it I would say we’ll probably be online all the way through to the summer, and possibly beyond, but that decision has not been made yet.

To nobody’s surprise we’re also going to have online examinations in the summer again. We’ve done two rounds of these already so are getting used to them now so that’s not a problem.

The St Patrick’s Day break was basically when we flipped – by which I mean “changed teaching methods” rather than “went mad” – last year so at least we’ve already got teaching prepared for the second half of the forthcoming semester if Level 5 restrictions do continue.

I am actually a bit annoyed at the politicians for making hints about when the restrictions might end. It is clearly far too early to be talking about that. Here are yesterday’s numbers:

If you prefer them on a linear scale here they are:

New cases have fallen significantly since the latest peak but at least part of that is due to the fact that automatic close contact tracing couldn’t cope and was abandoned. Testing positivity rate has fallen to around 8.2% (from over 20%) , hospital admissions admissions are falling, and deaths may have peaked, so the evidence suggests there is a is a reduction, but the numbers are still way too high. They need to come down to much less than a 100 before any lifting of restrictions can be contemplated. At the current rate of decline that will take many weeks.  Suggesting opening up is going to happen soon will only make people impatient and reduce compliance.

Teaching term at Maynooth starts on Monday (1st February) and I have three modules to deliver, one of them a module I’ve never given before. Because there has been so much to do behind the scenes since Christmas I don’t think I’ll ever have started a term feeling so exhausted. The cycle of academic life carries on remorselessly despite the fact that everything takes longer to do under Covid-19 restrictions. It is an effort just to keep up.

Still at least we’ve all still got jobs to do and are still getting paid. It’s time to knuckle down and focus on reaching the mid-term break in one piece and then seeing where we go thereafter.