Archive for Covid-19

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?

Standing Up for Online Lectures

Posted in Covid-19, Education, mathematics, Maynooth with tags , , , , on November 3, 2020 by telescoper

I have a break of an hour between my last lecture on Vector Calculus (during which I introduced and did some applications of Green’s Theorem) and my next one on Mechanics & Special Relativity (during which I’m doing projectile motion), so I thought I’d share a couple of thoughts about online teaching.

I started the term by doing my lectures in the form of webcasts live from lecture theatres but since we returned from the Study Break on Monday I’ve been doing them remotely from the comfort of my office at home, which is equipped with a blackboard (installed, I might add, at my own expense….)

I still do these teaching sessions “live”, though, rather than recording them all offline. I toyed with the idea of doing the latter but decided that the former works better for me. Not surprisingly I don’t get full attendance at the live sessions, but I do get around half the registered students. The others can watch the recordings at their own convenience. Perhaps those who do take the live webcasts appreciate the structure that a regular time gives to their study. Even if that’s not the reason for them, I certainly prefer working around a stable framework of teaching sessions.

“Why am I still using a blackboard?” I hear you ask. It’s not just because I’m an old fogey (although I am that). It’s because I’m used to pacing myself that way, using the physical effort of writing on the blackboard to slow myself down. I know some lecturers are delivering material on slides using, e.g., Powerpoint, but I have never felt comfortable using that medium for mathematical work. Aside from the temptation to go too fast, I think it encourages students to see the subject as a finished thing to be memorized rather than a process happening in front of them.

I did acquire some drawing tablets for staff to enable them to write mathematical work out, which is useful for short things like tutorial questions, but frankly they aren’t very good and I wouldn’t want to use them to give an hour long lecture.

In addition to these considerations, my decision to record videos in front of a blackboard was informed by something I’ve learnt about myself, namely that I find I am much more comfortable talking in this way when I’m standing up than sitting down. In particular, I find it far easier to communicate enthusiasm, make gestures, and generally produce a reasonable performance if I’m standing up. I know several colleagues who do theirs sitting down talking to a laptop camera, but I find that very difficult. Maybe I’m just weird. Who else prefers to do it standing up?

Level 5 Holiday Weekend

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19 with tags , , on October 24, 2020 by telescoper

The last Monday of October (Lá Saoire i mí Dheireadh Fómhair), aka the Halloween Holiday (Lá Saoire Oíche Shamhna), is a national holiday in Ireland so I’m currently in Bank Holiday weekend mode.

Tougher (Level 5) Covid-19 restrictions came into play at Midnight on Thursday so I guess I’ll be spending most of this weekend time at home, but that’s OK. It will be a chance to recharge the old batteries.

I’ll also have time to read the big booklet that arrived in yesterday’s mail.

This new regime is not at all like the first lockdown in March but my main worry is about compliance. The vast majority of people have behaved sensibly throughout the pandemic but enough haven’t to create a very worrying situation. I’m concerned that those people who flouted the Level Three restrictions will flout Level Five too, but we’ll see.

Last night we resumed the “virtual pub” night on Zoom with former colleagues from Cardiff, which went into abeyance when actual pubs reopened there. Wales has now gone into a stricter lockdown too, for at least 17 days. I think England will probably follow soon.

Anyway today’s tasks are: (i) to activate my home internet and (ii) to avoid reading work emails using it.

I arranged to have the router box etc delivered yesterday. The courier texted me in the morning to say they would deliver between 2pm and 4pm. I had a lecture scheduled from 12 to 1 so I went on campus, did the webcast from my office, and returned home by about 1.30. I waited there until almost 6pm and then gave up and went to buy beer and pizza.

When was coming back with the goods my next door neighbour saw me and came around with the package. The courier had arrived at my house at 11am and discovering that I was not in, had left it with her. No note at my house. No text or phone call to my mobile to say they’d been.

Nightline is the name of the courier company. They wasted a whole afternoon of my time. The driver also forged my signature in the process, surely a criminal offence?

Life at Level Five

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth, Politics with tags , , , on October 20, 2020 by telescoper

After refusing to do so two weeks ago, last night the Government decided to move all Ireland onto Level 5, the highest level of Covid-19 restrictions, for six weeks (although with some tweaks, e.g. the number of people allowed to weddings):

I think the previous refusal to implement tougher restrictions was a big mistake and has cost two weeks of exponential growth in new cases for no obvious benefit. I thought at the time that moving to Level 5 was inevitable giving the steep growth in numbers:

Here, for information is the latest plot of confirmed cases (as of last night):

The 7-day average of new cases is higher than it was at April’s peak, though thankfully the number of deaths is lower. Hospital (and specifically ICU admissions) are however, rising steadily.

We don’t know yet of any specific implications for teaching here at Maynooth University, though it will certainly mean even more teaching moves online. I think my own lectures will continue as Panopto webcasts in much the same way as before, except from my office rather than from a lecture theatre and without the handful of students who have so far been attending them in person. Next week (beginning 26th October) is our Study Week break which offers a bit of time to rearrange things. My first-year module has lectures on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Because the new restrictions kick in at midnight on Wednesday, that lecture will be the last one I do in a lecture theatre for a while. At least I got the best part of four weeks’ worth of lectures in that way.

More generally workers are required to work from home if they can with an exception for “essential services”. The general guidance given here includes:

11. The following services relating to professional, scientific and technical activities:

(a) the provision of engineering, technical testing activities and analysis (including the performance of physical, chemical and other analytical testing of materials and products);

(b) the provision of scientific research and development services;

(c) regulation, inspection and certification services, in accordance with law, of a particular sector by a body created by statute for that purpose.

and

16. The following services relating to education activities:

(a) primary and post primary school;

(b) higher and further education, insofar as onsite presence is required and such education activities cannot be held remotely.

This implies that the campus will not be closed like it was in March, so that this is not going to be a complete lockdown for either research or teaching. Moreover 16(b) does suggest that even laboratory-based teaching may carry on, but we await confirmation on that.

 

 

Covid-19: Out of Control

Posted in Covid-19, Maynooth, Politics with tags , , on October 16, 2020 by telescoper

The latest Covid-19 figures for Ireland make grim reading. Yesterday the number of new cases was the highest it has ever been since the start of the pandemic in March (though part of this is due to increased testing). The 7-day average is climbing relentlessly. It’s not the incidence rate itself which is the cause of alarm, it’s the fact that it is on an exponential trajectory again (with a doubling time only just over a week):

Yesterday evening the National Public Health Emergency Team advised that the entire country should immediately move to Level 5 for a period of six weeks.

Will the Government agree to this escalation? NPHET advised such a move less than a fortnight ago, but to no avail. Since then the situation has deteriorated more quickly than anyone predicted. It’s easy to be wise after the event but I think that decision was a very bad mistake. Even if they agree now, precious time will have been lost. There are now so many cases that contact tracing is effectively impossible, and hospitals are already feeling the strain. Unless something drastic is done now, by next month the health system will be overloaded. In my opinion it will be a scandal if there is no immediate move to Level 5.

Failing to move to Level 5 earlier this month was the second big mistake this Government has made. The first was the decision taken in June to wind down restrictions starting from 20th July, earlier than the original ‘Roadmap’ indicated. That was a mistake because it sent out a message that the pandemic was almost over. The change in behaviour among certain sectors of the public was immediate. Complacency set in, and the second wave started. It seems to me that the Roadmap was working so there was no need to change it.

Most European countries are experiencing a `second wave’ of Covid-19, in many cases worse than the first, so I’m not saying that adhering to the original Roadmap would have prevented a similar phenomenon in Ireland. I am saying that it could have been slowed considerably. By loosening the constraints too quickly and then not applying them again quickly enough, in both cases bowing to pressure from vested interests, the Government has made a difficult situation far worse than it need have been. They’ve let the situation get out of control and now nobody knows how it is going to end.

Third Level at Level Three and Back to Square One

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , on September 26, 2020 by telescoper

I spent a big chunk of yesterday assigning students to groups and organization rotations to allow them to attend lectures on campus at Maynooth University in a manner consistent with public health guidelines relating to Covid-19. Then, late yesterday afternoon, the Irish Government announced that all third-level institutions should move practically all* their teaching online. In effect, all higher education institutions have been raised to Level Three on the Government’s scale of restrictions.

This announcement came as a shock, not least because of the timing. Announcing drastic changes on the Friday before the Monday teaching is due to start has bounced a huge number of lecturers (including myself) into having to work all weekend to revise our plans and to contact students to tell them in time that they shouldn’t come onto campus on Monday morning. As far as I am aware there was no discussion of this move with the University sector. It’s yet another example of those in authority taking for granted the willingness of academic staff to work at weekends.

Maynooth University had anticipated some of the changes by reducing the maximum class size to 30 but the Government announcement is much more stringent than these. It seems to have been motivated by developments in universities elsewhere at which high levels of infection have arisen. The extent to which these are due to transmission in lecture halls and laboratories as opposed to student residences is unclear to me though. Many of our students are already on campus. I’m not sure that having them here but cooped up in halls will achieve very much.

Institutions like Maynooth University have spent all summer putting in stringent measures to comply with public health guidance to allow in-person teaching for the new semester. Now it is clear that was all a complete waste of time and resources. Moreover, the decision to keep students off campus is tantamount to an admission that the measures previously suggested by the HSE were inadequate.

I know colleagues at other institutions that made the decision some months ago to go online this Semester are saying “I told you so”. They’re justified in feeling a bit smug. All our attempts to bring students onto campus have achieved is to distract us from putting more time and resources into preparations for online teaching. We tried because we think the on-campus teaching is valuable to the student experience. I think it was worth a shot, but it has come to naught. We’re now back where we were in March. It’s very frustrating, to put it mildly, to have spent so long on a fool’s errand.

Anyway, all our lectures will be online from next week for the foreseeable future. The official Government line is “for two weeks”, but that’s what we were told on March 12th. I think it’s much more likely that we’re online for the entire academic year.

I’m not going to mention the considerable number of other things that went wrong last week, but I trudged home last night overwhelmed with fatigue. And term hasn’t started yet. I’m too old for all this.

* There is a possible exemption for laboratories and other practical sessions, as well as small-group tutorials. Students in experimental subjects will therefore get some tuition on campus. As for tutorials, though, I can’t really see students travelling for a tutorial when they have no lectures to attend on campus, so we’ll probably move them online too.

Plan B for Teaching

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on September 21, 2020 by telescoper

Yesterday’s Covid-19 figures for Ireland were a bit of a shocker, with 396 new cases (241 of them in Dublin). The latest 7-day average is 283.1 new cases per day. We haven’t seen figures like this since April. Here’s the latest log-linear graph:

Just a reminder: I keep a complete record of the daily figures here.

The surge in cases in Dublin is the the reason for the imposition of additional restrictions. Although we’re not in Dublin, many of our students travel to campus from the areas of West Dublin where the rate of infection is high (such as Tallaght) so Maynooth University has decided to ‘escalate protective measures‘. This means, among other things, that the maximum class size for in-person lectures on campus is 30.

So this morning I’ve been grappling with the implications of this for our teaching plans in the Department of Theoretical Physics. Student registrations are coming in now and though they are not complete we have a much better idea of how many students we will have in each class. The limit of 30 really just makes a difference to second year Mathematical Physics modules where the class size is around 40. We had intended to teach these all together but now they will need to be split into two groups to be taught separately. It will also impact our teaching for Engineering and Product Design, both of which have more than 30 students in class.

The remaining issue is the first year Mechanics & Special Relativity module MP110 which is a much larger class that I’d already decided to split into three groups. The problem would arise if the size of these groups exceeded the capacity constraints. First-year registration has not yet finished but it looks at the moment that we’ll be OK with Plan A. Possibly.

One of the difficulties will be communicating the arrangements to new students in time for the start of lectures on Monday 28th September, a week today. It is important that we don’t have students turning up for sessions to which they have not been assigned. There will be a lot of messages flying around about this for the rest of this week and over the weekend. Even even set up a departmental Twitter feed which you can follow here:

If the situation in Dublin (and nationally) continues to deteriorate we may well be back in the situation in which we found ourselves in March, with everything going online but that isn’t where we are at the moment. The limit of 30 on class sizes is a challenge, but it is our intention that lectures in Theoretical Physics will go ahead on campus starting next Monday.
How long it will take to move to Plan C is anyone’s guess.

A Semester of Covid-19

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth, Music with tags , , , , , , , on September 12, 2020 by telescoper

It’s the Twelfth of September so it’s now precisely six months to the day since schools and colleges in Ireland were closed because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The initial announcement on 12th March was that the closure would be until 29th March. Little did we know then that six months later campus would still be closed to students.

Here is how the pandemic has progressed in Ireland since March:

On 12th March, 70 new cases of Covid-19 were announced in Ireland; yesterday there were 211. The current 7-day average in Ireland is over 180 new cases per day and is climbing steadily. Things are similar, if not worse, elsewhere in Europe. as countries struggle to contain the pandemic while simultaneously attempting to reopen their economies. We are heading towards a very difficult autumn, with a large second peak of infection definitely on the cards. Who knows how this will turn out?

The word ‘semester’ is derived from the Latin for ‘six months’ but the term now applies almost exclusively to half a university teaching year, usually more like four months.

I’m looking ahead to the next teaching semester at Maynooth University, which starts in two weeks. The last time I gave a face-to-face lecture was on the morning of March 12th (a Thursday). Going home that evening I was engulfed by morbid thoughts and wondered if I would ever see the students again. Now we’re making plans for their return to (limited) on-campus teaching. Outline teaching plans have now been published, so returning students will have an idea how things will go. These will be refined as we get a better idea of student numbers. Given the continued increase in Covid-19 cases there is a significant chance of another campus closure at some point which will necessitate going online again but, at least to begin with, our students in Theoretical Physics will be getting 50% or more of the in-person teaching they would have got in a normal year.

Yesterday third-level institutions made their first round of CAO offers. Maynooth’s can be found here. Our offer for MH206 Theoretical Physics & Mathematics is, like many courses around the country, up a bit at 510 points reflecting the increase in high grades in this year’s Leaving Certificate.

We won’t know the final numbers for at another week or more but based on the traffic on Twitter yesterday Maynooth in general seems to be very popular:

Outline teaching plans are available for new students but these will not be finalised until Orientation Week is over and students have registered for their modules, which will not be until Thursday 24th September, just a few days before teaching starts. The weekend of 26th/27th looks like being a very busy one!

Returning to the original theme of the post I have to admit that I haven’t set foot outside Maynooth once in the last six months. I haven’t minded that too much, actually, but one thing I have missed is my weekly trip to the National Concert Hall in Dublin. Last night saw the start of a new season of concerts by the RTE National Symphony Orchestra at the NCH. There is no live audience for these so it’s not the same as being there in person, but watching and listening on the live stream is the next best thing.

Last night’s programme was a very nice one, of music by Mendelssohn Mozart and Beethoven, that not only provided a welcome tonic to the end of a busy week but also provided a great example of how to adapt. I’m glad they’re back and am looking forward to the rest of the season.

Thoughts on Mortality

Posted in Covid-19 with tags , , , on September 2, 2020 by telescoper

I was updating my Covid-19 statistics page yesterday after the daily announcement and I noticed that it has now been ten consecutive days since the last Covid-19 related death in Ireland. As of yesterday there were only 40 people with Covid-19 in hospitals in the Republic, six of whom were in intensive care.

These low numbers are of course very good news indeed, but it got me wondering why. As you can see from the above graph, new cases started to increase about two months ago. In the first wave the mortality figures started to grow with a much shorter lag, although it is difficult to be too precise about it because of delays in testing and reporting that shifted the blue curve to the right.

With new cases in the Republic now appearing at an average rate of around 100 per day and assuming a mortality rate of a few percent, one might have expected to see the mortality figures rising, but this has not happened. It must be said though that the current level of new cases is much lower than the initial peak, as this linear plot (also smoothed on a 7-day window) makes clear:

An even more remarkable case is that of France (data from here):

The blue curve is a 7-day moving average. You can see that the level of new cases in France is about the same as it was in late March. The daily mortality figure however looks like this:

So the mortality rate among recent cases is much lower in France than in Ireland.

I’m not going to discuss mortality data in the United Kingdom as these are being fiddled by the Government who have arbitrarily decided not to count anyone who dies more than 4 weeks after testing positive for Covid-19 in the figures. It’s a blatant con intended to make people think that the situation in the UK is better than it actually is.

I suppose the main factor for this is that the more recent cases are not happening in hospitals or care homes and they are affecting mainly younger people who have no underlying health conditions; over 70% of the recent cases in Ireland are people under the age of 45. It may also be that the treatment of patients is more effective now that it was in March and April.

Some people are arguing on social media are saying that data such as these prove that the Coronavirus has lost its potency and is no longer a threat. In order to provide evidence in support of such a claim one would have to take account of the differences in demographic and health history of new cases versus older ones, and I have not seen such a study.

Update: I had a terrible feeling that this would happen, but the same day I wrote this a further Covid-19 related death was reported. This was however a late notification of a death that occurred in June. For the latest figures see here.