Archive for Covid-19

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.

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.

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.

All Change for Semester Two!

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on January 31, 2022 by telescoper

So here we are, then, at the start of Semester Two at Maynooth University. When I arrived in the Department of Theoretical Physics I noticed a few differences:

August 2020 versus January 2022

All the signage relating to physical distancing has been removed. We are no longer required to observe 2m spacing between individuals in labs or anywhere else. That solves my potential problem about constraints in the Computational Physics lab (to the left of the picture).

Our little kitchen is also now back in operation so we can share that space for lunch or coffee, sitting around the table which has now been put back in place. Staff meetings can be held in person, though the meeting of Academic Council I have to attend this afternoon will still be via Teams. I don’t actually start teaching until tomorrow and will be in the office most of the day so will have to wait until tomorrow until I find out how busy the campus seems; we expect there to be more students around than last term.

Students are still to wear face coverings in lectures etc but other than that all restrictions seem to have gone, including those on eating and social spaces on campus. Everyone seems to have decided that this pandemic is all over. Only time – and perhaps the next coronavirus variant – will tell whether they are right.

End of Term Blog

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , on December 18, 2021 by telescoper

Yesterday was the last day of teaching at Maynooth University for 2021 and, although I didn’t have any teaching to do, I walked to the Department partly to get a bit of fresh air having been stuck at home on Thursday after my booster jab, and partly to collect a few things before the break. I also discovered that a lovely parcel of goodies had been sent to me and I was anxious to collect the items before Christmas.

I’ll be keeping myself to myself over the break, apart from the odd trip to the shops, and am glad to be doing so. We are yet to see the steep increase in Covid-19 cases associated with the omicron variant happening in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. If anything case numbers are currently declining slowly. But the new wave will undoubtedly hit Ireland soon.

UPDATE: not half an hour after I posted this, the HSE announced 7333 new cases of Covid-19 in Ireland, more than double yesterday’s figure and the highest number seen since early January. And this is before the Christmas surge.

The jury is still out on whether omicron is more or less dangerous than previous variants but it is clearly more transmissible, and I don’t see the point of taking chances, so I agree with the Irish Government on the need to take precautions. I don’t think the latest restrictions go anywhere near far enough though.

Yesterday we received at work an email from University management that said, among other things, that

At present the aim is to resume teaching on 31 January, as in Semester 1.

The phrase “as in Semester 1” means that large lectures will be online-only but everything else will be face-to-face. That is a reasonable starting point because the extent of the omicron wave is as yet unknown, but I think it’s more likely than not that in the end we’ll find ourselves doing everything online. I just hope a decision on that is made in reasonable time for us to put Plan B into action. We don’t start lectures again until January 31st and there should be enough data by then to make an informed decision.

I don’t want to sound unduly pessimistic but I don’t see any sign that we are anywhere near the end of this pandemic. With a bit of luck we might find that we’re roughly halfway through, but as long as governments allow large pools of virus to circulate, mutations will continue to occur and new variants will continue to emerge. To end this cycle will require a majority of the world’s population to be vaccinated, and I don’t see that happening soon.

Boosted!

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19 with tags , , on December 15, 2021 by telescoper

This morning I duly made my way for the third time this year to City West vaccination Centre to get a booster shot of the Moderna vaccine. Given reports of lengthy queues I was prepared for a long wait but that wasn’t the case. I was in and out in 40 minutes including the mandatory 15 minutes after the jab. It was busy, but good organisation kept us all moving steadily. Once again huge thanks are due to the HSE staff and volunteers (including the piano player) for all their efforts!

It could have been even quicker but the computer system had mistakenly registered that I have a history of anaphylaxis (which I don’t) so I had to answer a longer set of questions and wait for my record to be corrected. I guess someone ticked the wrong box the last time I was there!

I didn’t have any serious side effects with my other doses but I am working from home anyway, and don’t have anything scheduled this afternoon, so I can crash out if needs be. In the meantime I’ll get on with some work…

P. S. There seemed to me to be much less nervousness among the people in the queue this time. Everyone was quite chatty. I guess we’re all getting used to this rigmarole now!

Update: 10.20pm. No particularly serious side effects but I’m feeling very tired and achey so am having an early night!

Update: 9.30am the following day. The third dose (booster) has given me a far stronger reaction than the previous two. In particular my left arm (where I had the jab) is so numb as to be virtually useless and all my joints are aching. I’m glad I can stay at home today!

The Coronavirus Vaccine Effect

Posted in Covid-19, mathematics with tags , , , , , , on December 12, 2021 by telescoper

When I was updating my Covid-19 page today I thought I would try something a bit different. Here are the cases and deaths (in the form of 7-day rolling averages) as I usually plot them:

You can see a slight recent downturn – the latest 7-day average of new cases is 4214.3; it has been falling for a few days. A log plot like this shows up the changing ratio between deaths and cases quite well, as in l if you multiply a quantity by a factor that manifests itself as a constant shift upwards or downwards. There is clearly a bigger shift between the orange and blue curves after 500 days than there is, say, between, 300 and 400.

(I don’t think you can read much into the gap between the curves at the beginning (up to around 100 days in) as testing coverage was very poor then so cases were significantly underestimated.

Anyway, to look at this a bit more clearly I plotted the ratio of daily reported deaths to daily confirmed cases over the course of the pandemic. This is the result:

The sharp downward glitches occur whenever the number of reported deaths is zero, as log of zero is minus infinity. The broader downward feature after about 300 days represents the period in January 2021 when cases were climbing but deaths had not caught up. To deal with that I tried plotting the deaths recorded at a particular time divided by the cases two weeks earlier. This is that result:

The spike is still there, but is much decreased in size, suggesting that a two week lag between cases and deaths is a more useful ratio to look at. Note the ratio of deaths to cases is significantly lower from 500 days onwards than it was between 200 and 400 (say), by a factor a bit less than ten.

This obviously doesn’t translate into a direct measure of the efficacy of vaccines (not least because many of the recent cases and deaths are among the minority of unvaccinated people in Ireland) but it does demonstrate that there is a vaccine effect. Without them we would be having death rates up to ten times the current level for the same number of daily cases or, more likely, we would be in a strict lockdown.

On the other hand if cases do surge over the Christmas period there will still be a huge problem – 10 % of a large number is not zero.

Irony Alert!

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19 with tags , on December 10, 2021 by telescoper

Having just started working from home yesterday, this afternoon I received the above message, via the Covid-19 tracker app, saying that I have been a close contact of someone who has tested positive for Covid-19. I don’t have symptoms so don’t have to do anything drastic, just restrict my movements for 5 days. I was going to do the latter anyway, so the timing is somewhat ironic!

Oh and they’re going to send me an “antigen kit”, presumably to keep me occupied for the next few days. It should be fun because I’ve never made an antigen before.

Incidentally the message isn’t very clearly worded. I think I was a close contact on 6th December of someone who subsequently tested positive. That may account for why I have only got this message on 10th!

A Date for a Boost!

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education with tags , , , , on December 9, 2021 by telescoper

After expressing concern about the prospects of getting a timely booster jab last night I received an SMS message offering me an appointment next Wednesday for a shot. The text was sent on 8th December, six months to the day since my second jab (8th June). I will once again have to travel to City West in order to receive it, so will have take some time off work but that’s a small price to pay.

I had inferred (incorrectly) that it would take much longer to get a date for booster because most of the people I know in their sixties haven’t had theirs yet and they are higher priority than me. I now realise that may be because they had the AstraZeneca vaccine, which had a longer interval between first and second doses than the 4 weeks for the Pfizer vaccine I had, so had a later second dose than mine.

My third vaccine dose will be of the Moderna vaccine; the previous two were Pfizer/BioNTech. It seems everyone who is getting a shot this month will be getting the Moderna version as Ireland has a large stock of this vaccine due to expire next month. Although its efficacy against the omicron variant is unknown, I will of course attend the appointment.

Yesterday, before I received the text message announcing my booster shot, I emailed the students in my classes to say the remaining lectures of the term will be online-only because of the high levels of Covid-19 in circulation and my waning immunity. Next week’s booster doesn’t change that as next week is the last week of teaching. My plan is to do the lectures live as webcasts and make the recordings available afterwards, which is how I’ve done them the entire term, except I’ll be doing them from home with no in-person audience. Apart, that is, from next Wednesday, when I’ll only be able to offer a pre-recorded lecture as I’ll be at City West when the lecture is scheduled. That will be my last lecture of the Semester, as most of my teaching is concentrated in the early part of the week.

Owing to a combination of Covid-19, Storm Barra and no doubt sheer exhaustion, student attendance at lectures and tutorials on campus has fallen sharply, though attendance at my second-year class has remained quite high. On Tuesday the campus was virtually deserted but about 70% of my class for Vector Calculus & Fourier Series were there. Somehiw, though, I don’t think they’ll mind too much watching the remaining couple of lectures from the comfort of their homes!