Archive for Coronavirus

Back to Online Examinations Again

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on November 26, 2021 by telescoper

This afternoon teaching staff at Maynooth University were informed of changes to the plans for the January examination session: all examinations will now be held remotely, apart possibly from those for some final-year modules; for the latter the lecturer will decide whether they should be on campus or remote.

It’s worth mentioning that a petition set up recently by the Maynooth University Students Union urging the University to switch exams online attractive over 4,000 signatures.

As I said a while ago I think this is a very sensible move. I was chatting to some students before a lecture earlier today and I think they will all be relieved that a decision has been taken and they can make sensible plans for the Examination Period. I am teaching one module for first-year students and one for second-years this semester so both of these will definitely be going online.

We now have done three full cycles of online examinations since the pandemic started: May 2020, January 2021 and May 2021, plus two sets of repeats. I think we have a pretty good idea what we are doing with them and have got three weeks before the end of term to make any changes to the papers we have written for January. Since the online examinations are effectively open-book tests we tend to exclude bookwork – stating results which the students could easily look up – and concentrate instead on problem-solving tasks. Online examinations done this way are certainly no easier than in-person papers, and emphasize what is probably the most useful skill we try to develop.

I am glad we have some clarity on the examinations. We still have three weeks of teaching to finish before the end of term, though, and no changes have been announced to plans for lectures and tutorials. I told my class this afternoon however that as of Wednesday 8th December I will have exceeded 6 months since my second Pfizer dose. There is very little chance I will get a booster dose by then so I will be working from home from that date until the end of term. That means I’ll be doing three first-year lectures and three second-year lectures from home using my famous blackboard. I explained this decision to my second-year class today and they were supportive.

Worrying Times…

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on November 14, 2021 by telescoper

So here I am, trying to plan my teaching for next week and wondering what’s going to happen between now and the end of term. Here at Maynooth University lectures finish on 17th December, five weeks from now. I’m just about on schedule to cover everything I’m supposed to, so I’m not worried about that.

What I am worried about is that Covid-19 cases are continuing to climb. The latest 7-day rolling average of new cases is over 3900 per day and the increasing trend show no sign of slowing down. It will reach the 5000 mark in a week or two. Some daily figures have already passed that milestone. The death rate is still relatively low – 74 Covid-19 related deaths were recorded in the last week – but is edging up; over a hundred people with Covid-19 are being treated in ICU as of today.

The Irish Government seems to have no intention of introducing effective countermeasures and is instead just advising people to cut down the amount of socializing they do. I don’t think that will work. It seems very clear to me that the Government lost the room many weeks ago by frequently implying that the Covid-19 pandemic was over. They then caved in to the hospitality industry by allowing nightclubs to open. It is no doubt in such places that the virus is spreading. The Government keep stating that they are concerned but do nothing, blinking at the onrushing disaster like rabbits caught in the headlights of an approaching car.

Case numbers on campus at Maynooth remain fairly low, though the latest figure (69) is almost double last week’s figure (35). Students in my classes continue to wear face coverings and observe the other protocols and all the signs are that lecture halls and labs are pretty safe environments but we have no say in what happens off campus. As well as being concerned for the health of students and staff, I have particular worries about my Department. We’ve been short-staffed since the start of term and simply have no spare effort to provide cover for lectures or tutorials if anyone becomes sick.

The Irish Health Service is under extreme pressure and the delivery of booster shots is being rolled out very slowly. I had my second Pfizer dose in June so should get a third shot in December but it is not clear that I will. I’m not going anywhere at Christmas anyway so that’s not a big deal but I’m worried by the broader picture. A cartoon in a recent issue of Private Eye is very apt:

Might we have to switch our lectures back online again before Christmas? Might our examinations be online again in January? Who knows. We’ll just have to wait and see but I think the blackboard in my study might be back in use very soon.

A Year at Home

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Maynooth with tags , , on August 26, 2021 by telescoper

I was reminded this morning that it was a year ago yesterday that I received the keys to my house in Maynooth. I didn’t move in straight away as the house was empty and I had paid the rent on the flat I was living in until the end of August, so I moved my things gradually over the course of a week or so. Looking through all the paperwork this morning I found the pictures that the Estate Agent had used to advertise the property. Here are a few of them:

You’ll see that the bookshelves in the sitting room were empty at the time. They mostly still are. I didn’t think this time last year that I’d still be waiting a year later for my belongings to arrive from Cardiff, but at least they are in transit now. Delivery is pencilled in for next week, as a matter of fact; doing the removal on the cheap as a return load meant waiting a few weeks. I am looking forward to filling the shelves with my books (20-odd boxes of them) and putting up my own artwork. I’ve had enough of bare walls.

This morning our weekly Faculty Executive meetings resumed, the main topic of discussion – as it was this time last year – being the plans to return to on-campus teaching next month. I thought it would be interesting to show a comparison between the Covid-19 figures in Ireland on August 25th 2020 and August 25th 2021:

You will see that the daily case numbers in Ireland are currently about a factor 20 higher than they were this time last year: yesterday we had 2051 new Covid-19 cases in Ireland; a year ago there were 92. That is significant because the effect of vaccines in suppressing serious illness is at most 95%. Since the number of cases is up by a factor of 20, in some sense the risk level if everyone in the population were vaccinated would be about the same now as it was this time last year. And of course not everyone actually is vaccinated, and not everyone will be by the time teaching starts again on 20th September.

Last year the case numbers increased substantially between August and September meaning that we went back into lockdown in October. We don’t know whether or not case numbers will increase again this year, of course, but from the point of view of resuming teaching we’re really in no better shape now than we were at this time last year. Our optimism then was misplaced and that may well be true now too. This is why so many people in the University system are nervous about the edicts we have been given to return to full lecture theatres with no social distancing, no mandatory masks, and no vaccination certificates. This seems like asking for trouble.

On a personal note, I am pleased to report that the mild symptoms I mentioned on Monday have completely disappeared and, to no surprise at all, my PCR test came back negative. It may or may not be relevant that the weather has improved greatly over the last two or three days. I have now come to the conclusion that what I had was some form of seasonal allergy, possibly connected with crop harvesting in the area spreading pollen or fungal spores. The latter are more prevalent in damp or humid weather, which might be the reason for reduction in effect now. Or it could just be that a nearby farmer has stopped doing whatever he was doing. I don’t know enough about field theory to be certain.

Anyway, all of this means I can now stop self-isolating and start returning to campus again. To be honest, though, it was rather nice self-isolating at home as I spent most of the time working in the garden…

Vaccination for Lectures?

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , on August 20, 2021 by telescoper

The full guidelines on the return to on-campus teaching in September that I referred to on Monday have now been distributed to all staff, not without comment.

Basically the new advice is that in-person teaching will return in September (in fact a month from today in Maynooth) for all forms of class except lectures containing over 250 people, which will be online. Lecture halls and labs will be at full capacity, i.e. with no social distancing requirement. Students will be “asked” to wear face coverings, but we are told not to attempt to enforce this. Importantly, there will be no requirement for students to have been vaccinated in order to attend lectures.

In Ireland there is a vaccination passport system so that those who wish to dine indoors at a bar or restaurant have to show vaccination status. Perhaps someone can explain to me how it makes sense for this to be a requirement in a restaurant while it is not a requirement for a student having to sit for an hour in close proximity to up to 249 others with no social distancing and no mandatory face coverings.

This conundrum is taken to another level of absurdity when you consider that a student wishing to get lunch indoors on campus will presumably have to show their vaccine passport?

There is an article here that argues that a safe return in the presence of the delta-variant requires 90% of the student population to have been vaccinated.

A more acceptable plan would have students show their vaccination status when enrolling on the course. Those who are unvaccinated but willing to have a vaccination shot could be vaccinated there and then and be allowed to attend lectures when the vaccine takes effect. Or I should say “could have been” because the facilities required to do on-campus vaccinations have not been set up and now there probably isn’t time. Those that refuse to have a vaccine should attend lectures online on a permanent basis.

(How such a scheme would be policed is a difficult question: we don’t usually have people on the doors of lecture theatres checking student IDs or anything and there is a far greater rate of traffic at the start of a lecture than you would have at a restaurant…)

There will of course be some students who are at very high risk and should not be attending lectures anyway even if vaccinated. For them we should be providing lecture recordings. Unfortunately I don’t think we have good enough facilities to record live lectures from theatres as there has been inadequate investment in cameras etc. If we’re told we have to provide lecture recordings, for many of us that means doing the lectures twice. And so our workload increases.

On the other hand it seems increasingly likely to me that all this will be irrelevant. New case numbers are running at about 1800 per day, a level that the HSE admits to being “unsustainable”. When the first colleges return in September, a substantial surge can be expected and everything will be back online anyway.

It’s like déjà vu all over again…

The vaccine effect

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

I saw this nifty graphic from the Financial Times floating around on social media and thought I would share it here. It’s a nice demonstration of the way the use of vaccines has impacted mortality rates from Covid-19. Basically the vaccines reduce the probability of a death by a factor greater than 10 (i.e. are more than 90% effective in doing this). On the logarithmic plot this appears as a downward shift in the “risk of death” that is more or less independent of age.

This behaviour is generally consistent with the observation that while infections in the UK are quite high the mortality rate is still rather low. Low is not zero, however, and there will still be some deaths if infection levels are high: a small fraction of a large number can still be significant.

Incidentally, about 70% of the adult population of Ireland has now been vaccinated with about 80% having received partial vaccination. The fraction of the total population fully vaccinated is about 54%. On this measure Spain has just overtaken the UK in vaccinations; Ireland is well above average for the EU. The USA and Israel have both flattened out considerably.

When I got back from my break I tried my best to update the statistics relating to Ireland here. Doing so reminded me that when I first decided to plot the data on a log y-axis I got a slew of comments on Twitter complaining that I was “manipulating the data”! The backlash against anything even simple mathematics is quite extraordinary sometimes.

Anyway, the latest logarithmic plot looks like this:

The death figures are unreliable because of the lingering effects on the ransomware attack on the Health Service Executive IT system but do seem to be much lower relative to infections than they were at earlier stages of the pandemic, even allowing for the fact that the first peak in the case curve should be higher as testing was not so extensive at this early stage. The 7-day average of new cases is currently around 1200-1300 per day.

It still fascinates me how the case numbers managed to stay roughly constant for such a long time at such a high level earlier this year…

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.

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.

 

Four Weeks To Go

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , on November 23, 2020 by telescoper

As I await another Zoom meeting I remembered this cartoon from last week’s Private Eye, which sums up the prevalent mood amongst academics these days (and no doubt people in other kinds of job too).

At the start of this morning’s Panopto lecture I realised that there are still 4 weeks left of this Semester before the Christmas break. I was a bit surprised by that as this term seems to have lasted a decade already. The time certainly hasn’t zoomed by. Still, at least I’ve more-or-less kept up with my planned schedule of lectures in both of my modules without slipping. I may even be able to finish lectures to my 2nd year Vector Calculus in time to do a bit of revision in the final week.

That’s not to say other things haven’t slipped. The greatly increased time for teaching needed to move everything online hasn’t left much time for research or anything else. I keep meaning to work in the evenings to deal with outstanding things but mostly I find once I’ve done the necessary admin and teaching stuff all I can do is sleep. It seems that I’ll have to work over Christmas to finish off the backlog. Given that I didn’t have a holiday this summer that’s not ideal, but it’s unlikely I’ll be going anywhere over the “festive” season owing to Coronavirus restrictions so I might as well make the best of it.

We don’t have much idea how things will work out next Semester. The politicians seem to be wanting universities to have more on-campus teaching in the New Year. They also want to end the current restrictions to end before Christmas. In fact the current regime is suppose to end on December 2nd, which is next week, and cases are still running around 400 per day. I don’t think they can do both of these and for the Covid-19 situation to remain under any semblance of control. I think the likeliest scenario is that cases surge over the next few weeks and the Christmas break and we have to go back into full restrictions in January or February.

There is however the prospect of a vaccine or vaccines being available fairly early next year so maybe the end of this is in sight. I really hope we can get back to campus normality at some point in 2021. I do feel very sad about the effect all these restrictions has been having on the students. It’s not just having to have remote lectures. I think having a lecturer in the same room is an advantage, but the loss of it is not the worst issue. We encourage our students to work with each other in their learning, and I’m sure students learn at least as much from each other as they do from the lecturer. Peer group learning is more difficult when your peers are sitting in separate locations most of the time.

Earlier today I found myself using the phrase “getting back to normal” in connection with plans for next teaching year. Then I realise that we staff know what we mean by “normal” but our first-year students don’t. I have a feeling that may might find it more difficult to adjust to the old normal than they did to the new one.

And in any case many of our students in all years did not take up accommodation in Maynooth at the start of this year because of the remote teaching. Even if we did on campus lectures or tutorials next term, I suspect many will stay at home anyway to avoid substantial cost of rented accommodation. We will therefore have to continue making material available online whatever happens.

Anyway, what may or may not happen next Semester is to a large extent out of my hands so I won’t be making any firm decisions on what approach I will be taking until much closer to the start of Semester 2 In the meantime the goal is to fight the exhaustion and try get through to the end of term in one piece.

Covid Questions for Ireland

Posted in Covid-19, Maynooth with tags , , on November 15, 2020 by telescoper

I’ve just done my daily update of Covid-19 numbers here and thought I’d show the latest figure:

There are now 262 data points on these graphs. When I started doing the updates I thought it might carry on for two or three months -i t’s now been almost nine and there’s no end in sight.

As you can see the 7-day average of new cases has been falling steadily since entered the period of Level 5 restrictions that is now about half-way through. That, of course, is good news. The problem is that the rate of decrease is really quite slow. The number of new cases on each day for the last week (including today) were: 270, 270, 362, 395, 482, 456, and 378 (today). That is fairly flat, the steep downward trend of the previous week apparently faltering. As a rough guess I’d say that by the time we come out of the current period of restrictions (at the beginning of December) we’ll probably still be having over a hundred new cases per day.

I think that level is far too high for comfort, but the current government is probably going to find it difficult to resist the political pressure to exit the lockdown in time for Christmas. If that does happen, I can see another lockdown looming in January. My superiors at Maynooth University are talking about having on-campus teaching again next Semester, but I think that’s highly unlikely in the circumstances.

Things are even worse in Northern Ireland where the number of new cases announced today was 478. Daily cases have been running higher there than in the Republic for some time, despite the fact that the six counties of Northern Ireland have a population of just 1.9 million compared to the 4.9 million of the 26 counties  in the Republic.

That brings me to the issue of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine that everyone is getting excited about. Assuming that it passes the various tests needed for it to be approved, Ireland would get about 2 million doses from the stock procured by the European Union.  The population of Ireland is about 4.9 million, and each person would require two doses, which means that supply will only enable about 20% of the population to be vaccinated.

(Actually I don’t know whether the 2 million refers to people that can be vaccinated or individual doses, but even if it’s the former that still accounts for only 40% of the population.)

The question then is who should be prioritized? I think we’d all agree that all health care workers should be vaccinated ASAP but that’s only about 25,000 people (source). Who should get the other doses? Most people seem to be assuming that those at highest risk of mortality should be vaccinated, but there’s also a case to be argued that  it should it should be those groups within which the virus is most likely to spread that should get it, which is presumably the otherwise healthy population.

I don’t know the answer, but it will be interesting to see how this all develops. In any case as far as I can see it there’s very little prospect of high levels of population immunity being reached by this time next year. And that’s even if the vaccine is available soon, which is by no means clear will be the case. As a matter of fact I wouldn’t bet against me still having to do daily updates on Covid-19 statistics for most of next year.

 

Dare we hope?

Posted in Covid-19, Poetry, Politics with tags , , , , , on November 9, 2020 by telescoper

A short passage from Seamus Heaney’s verse play The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes has been much quoted recently. It even ended the RTÉ News last night:

The passage begins

History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave.

Well, there’s an additional reason for hope this morning, in the announcement of good progress in the search for a vaccine against Covid-19. The two pharmaceutical companies involved are Pfizer (USA) and BioNTech SE (Germany). The reported efficacy of the vaccine tested so far is over 90%, which is far higher than experts have predicted. Now these are preliminary results, not yet properly reviewed, based on a sample of only 94 subjects, and I’m not sure what motivated the press release so early in the process. I’m given to understand that the type of vaccine concerned here would also be challenging to manufacture and distribute, but we’re due for some good news on the Coronavirus front so let’s be (cautiously) optimistic.

On top of that it seems that Ireland at least is turning the tide against the second wave, with new cases falling every day for over a week:

Dare we hope?