Archive for Covid-19

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.

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.

 

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.

 

Teaching after Covid

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

I know it’s a Business lecture, but at least there is a periodic table on the wall to remind students of the time when Universities used to care about science.

Near the end of a planning meeting this morning I was asked to give my thoughts about any long-term impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on teaching and/or research. That also echoed a discussion I had with staff in the Department of Theoretical Physics on Teams a while ago, which touched on the same question.

My own view in general is that although we find ourselves constantly saying things like “When we get back to normal…” I think we have to accept that the pandemic is going to change many things irreversibly. We’re going to have to get used to new ways of working in both teaching and research. Some changes will be made to make financial savings owing to loss of income over however long the pandemic lasts, and some of those will no doubt be painful and sad. Others will be opportunities created by us learning how to do things differently and a number of these could be very positive, if we seize the initiative and make the most of them.

One specific thing in the latter category is that Maynooth University installed a system of lecture capture to help deliver teaching when access to campus was restricted (as it is now). The hardware and software installed is fairly basic and isn’t by any means perfect, but it has worked pretty well. The main problem is that the cameras that have been installed are very limited webcams and are not capable of capturing, e.g. a blackboard.

One thing I hope will happen in the long term is that we include lecture capture as a routine way of augment students’ learning. That will require additional investment in infrastructure, but I think it would be well worth it.

Some years ago I blogged about this at another institution, which had facilities allow lecturers to record videos of their own lectures which are then made available for students to view online.

This is of course very beneficial for students with special learning requirements, but in the spirit of inclusive teaching I think it’s good that all students can access such material. Some faculty are apparently a little nervous that having recordings of lectures available online would result in falling attendances at lectures, but in fact there is evidence that indicates precisely the opposite effect. Students find the recorded version adds quite a lot of value to the “live” event by allowing them to clarify things they might not have not noted down clearly. In my experience they rarely watch the whole video, instead focusing on things they didn’t get first time around. And if a few students decide that it’s good enough for them just to watch the video, then so what? That’s their choice. They are adults, after all.

I’ll add that I do feel we should still make the effort to return to doing live lectures in some form and not rely entirely on recordings. I think that what you can do in a lecture is fairly limited part of the overall educational package, but that’s not the same as saying that they should be scrapped. Many students do enjoy lectures and find them very helpful. I just think we should make the best of the available technology to offer as wide a range of teaching methods as possible. No two students are the same and no two students learn precisely the same way. Let us offer them a variety of resources and they can choose which serves them best.

Another important, but perhaps less tangible, aspect of this is that I think education is or should be a shared experience for students. Just having everyone sit in the same room “enjoying” the same teaching session is a great benefit compared with having them sit in their room watching things on a laptop screen. I think that’s one of the worst issues with remote teaching, and wish we had found better ways of dealing with that over the past year.

There is a benefit for the lecturer of having a live audience too, in that actually seeing the people you’re trying to teach helps you gauge how well you’re getting it across.

Anyway, I started a poll on lecture capture a while ago before the pandemic. Feel free to add your opinion. It will be interesting to see if opinions have changed!

Thought For The Year

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , on January 13, 2021 by telescoper

In the midst of the January examination period I’ve been thinking about how tough this year has been nd will continue to be for all students in third-level institutions, but especially the cohort currently in the first year of their course. I think it’s now fairly clear that nearly all their study this year will be done remotely. We on the teaching side have all tried to make the best of this situation but there’s no question that the learning experience we have been able to offer is not as good this year as in other years. On top of that the students – especially in the first year – have been denied the chance to get to know other students through personal interactions, clubs & societies, or through joint interests. Those of us who went to University in more normal times know that many of the friendships we made when we first arrived at college stayed with us for the rest of our lives.

Thinking about this I want to make a suggestion. It is that every student currently in their first year of study at a third-level institution should be offered the chance to start again in the autumn and repeat the whole academic year, regardless of how well they do this time round. Not all students will want to do this, and not all will be able to because of personal circumstances, but I feel we should at least offer them the possibility and back it up with funding for the repeated year. My own suspicion is that it would be a minority, but probably a significant minority, that would opt for this. It would cost money, but I think it would mean a lot to a considerable number of students.

I can anticipate an objection that students repeating their first year will take up places that would normally go to next year’s new intake. That depends on how many would take up the repeat offer, of course. Extra capacity may be needed for some but not all courses. But it also seems to me that this year’s Leaving Certificate students will have had their studies affected too. Perhaps final-year school students should be offered the chance to repeat their year too?

Would starting and/or finishing college a year later really be such a problem given the extraordinary nature of the Covid-19 crisis?

P.S. I’ve talked about the situation in Ireland, but everything I’ve said will apply elsewhere too.

SARS-Cov-2 Vaccine strategy: One Jab or Two?

Posted in Covid-19 with tags , , , , , on January 13, 2021 by telescoper

I’ve been thinking quite a lot about the issue of the Coronavirus vaccination programmes currently underway and have had some interesting and informative exchanges on Twitter about it. This morning’s news that AstraZeneca has finally applied to the European Commission for permission to market its vaccine within the European Union reminded me of those discussions so I thought I’d post a question here. I genuinely don’t know the answer, incidentally, so there’s no agenda here!

As you probably know all SARS-COV-2 vaccines (Moderna, Pfizer/Biontech and AstraZeneca) require two doses, administered about three weeks apart, for maximum efficacy. It’s worth saying before going on that the scientists involved deserve high praise for developing these highly effective vaccines at a speed that has exceeded all expectations.

At the moment however supplies of these vaccines are fairly limited and it’s early days for immunization programmes so there are serious logistical problems to be solved before we get anywhere near full vaccination. I grabbed this from Twitter yesterday showing the state of play in various countries:

Note, incidentally, that Denmark is doing particularly well within the EU but France, Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium have started very slowly. Ireland is about mid-table.

At the top of the league is Israel, though  they are not offering vaccination to the Palestinian people whose lands they occupy. Israel has just reported that after 12 days the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine has about 50% efficacy after one dose based on results from its own programme. That number is roughly consistent with initial estimates of from trials this vaccine but the statistics aren’t great and there is a considerable margin of error on these figures.

Now the question I am asking myself is that given the limited supply is it better at this stage to give as many people as possible one dose of the vaccine, or follow the manufacturers’ original plan and give two doses to half as many people? There are reports that the UK has been deferring the second dose beyond the recommended interval, where there is no data on its efficacy. Perhaps I’m being excessively cynical but it seems to me that the UK Government’s approach is more driven by public relations than by public health considerations.

I understand that there are difficult issues here, not least the ethical one of having people sign up for a specific two-dose vaccination only to find that’s not what they get. Another issue is the speed with which doses are being made available relative to the size of the population. Yet another issue is who you prioritize.

Above all, though, there is the question of what you mean by “better”. One criterion would be to save as many lives as possible. Another might be to slow the rate of infections as much as possible. Another might be to allow the economy to open up as early as possible. These are all different and would lead to different decisions, particularly with regard to who should get the vaccine. Saving lives obviously means protecting the vulnerable and the people who care for them (e.g. health workers). Economic considerations would however lead you to prioritize those on whom the economy depends most directly, which would include workers who can’t easily work from home (many of whom are in low-paid manual jobs).

The following poll is therefore going to be very unscientific, but I’m interested to find out what people think. In  order to keep it simple, lets suppose you have a batch of two million doses of a vaccine (say the Pfizer one) and the next batch is due in three months.

You have to decide between the following two options:

  1.  Give 1,000,000 people one dose now and another dose in three weeks’ time
  2.  Give 2,000,000 people one dose now and hope that it is effective for three months (or that additional supplies appear more quickly than anticipated).

Vote now!

A similar poll I did on Twitter a while ago can be found here: there are some quite interesting comments in the ensuing thread.

Comments are of course welcome through the Comments Box!

P.S. I’m quite low down the pecking order in Ireland so it’s unlikely I’ll get vaccinated before the summer.

Covid-19 in Ireland: where it all went wrong

Posted in Covid-19, Politics with tags , , on January 10, 2021 by telescoper

I don’t buy a daily paper, but I am a regular reader of the Irish Times Weekend edition. The reporting, especially on international news, is generally good and although it is basically an Establishment newspaper it is fairly balanced. That can’t be said for the opinion pieces however, which are frequently execrable. A particularly shitty example is provided by a column by Political Editor Pat Leahy in this Weekend’s edition.

It’s bad enough that he writes as if the most important thing about the pandemic is not that people are dying but that there might be implications for Ireland’s political establishment. And that he takes the opportunity to take churlish swipes like “Many public servants have, of course, been working furiously hard. Some haven’t.” As a public servant who has put in countless hours of unpaid overtime over the past year that snide comment really got my goat, coming as it does from a Political Editor who trots out lazy evidence-free rubbish for a living.

This is the trajectory of the Covid-19 pandemic in Ireland.

Restrictions were lifted on 1st December. New cases started to climb steeply almost immediately, doubling roughly every 7 days. It was obvious then – by simple extrapolation of the exponential curve – that there would be around 1000 new cases per day by Christmas and about 2000 by New Year.

The only reason we didn’t have 2000 cases per day by 31st December was that the system couldn’t cope with so many positive test results and a backlog developed. Today, 10th January, 6888 cases were reported. Hospitalizations, ICU admissions and, sadly, deaths are now tracking upwards after the inevitable delay.

Loosening the restrictions with new cases at hundreds per day always looked to me to be very wrong-headed. I’m not happy to have been proven right.

Against this backdrop Pat Leahy says this:

What?

This is simply untrue. It is true that there was a general expectation that the growth curve would not be so steep, with perhaps 500 cases by Christmas. That was wrong by about a factor two but given the doubling time and no interventions 1000 would have been reached a week later. As someone who argued for relaxation in December, Mr Leahy is rather obviously trying to rewrite history to make him appear less culpable.

In my view the reason why the residual restrictions in December did not slow the increase in Covid-19 cases was that the messaging from the Government was too complicated, had too many exceptions, and gave the appearance that it was arbitrary and without clear justification. This, together with persistent lobbying by vested interests in the hospitality sector, encouraged enough people to ignore even the weakened restrictions in the run-up to Christmas and through the holiday period. In short, the Government has lost the room. Worryingly, I don’t think that it understands this even now.

Even now with a dire health emergency in clear view, I still see people circulating in groups without face coverings. What went wrong, in my opinion, is that the Government was too weak to stick to the advice given to it from the National Public Health Emergency Team and instead started tinkering about trying to satisfy various lobby groups.

But back to Mr Leahy. The statement that “nobody suggested the price for Christmas would be so severe” is plainly untrue: plenty of people knew exactly what was coming and said so loudly and publicly. Neither he nor the politicians listened. If there’s any justice the “political fallout” from this catastrophic weakness will be severe.

Anyway, after being angered by that dreadful Opinion column I’m seriously thinking of switching to a different paper. Any suggestions?

There’s a Moose Loose Aboot this Hoose!

Posted in Covid-19, Maynooth, Music with tags , on January 8, 2021 by telescoper

Artist’s Impression

I am working from home at the moment owing to Covid-19 restrictions on campus activity but I have been informed by on campus staff that an unauthorized mouse bas been seen in the Department of Theoretical Physics. This is a very serious situation as access to the Science Building is for essential work only and this does not include rodents, even if they have a PhD. Furthermore, the mouse is not wearing a face mask and, from what I have heard, is not observing proper sanitary procedures.

More importantly, our Covid-19 protocols require all visitors to the Department to be in receipt of a letter authorizing their presence. I have contacted Human Rodent Resources and no such letters have been issued.

I have therefore instructed all staff and students in the Department that if they see this mouse they should instruct it to leave and that any refusal to comply will be met with disciplinary action, initially taking the form of a formal written warning but escalating if necessary to a meeting with Maynooth University Library Cat.

There now follows a  message concerning these developments from Professor Brian Dolan.

I hope this clarifies the situation.