Confused by Coronavirus Pandemic Lingo? Here’s a Glossary

Nina Lin

The novel coronavirus has changed lives, economies and health care systems as we know it. 

On March 11, the World Health Organization classified COVID-19 as a pandemic. The respiratory virus that originated in China has infected hundreds of thousands of people worldwide, and killed thousands. 

Since the WHO's classification, the United States and other countries have taken drastic steps to attempt to slow the spread of the virus. From sheltering in place to travel restrictions to full border closures, the global pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of daily life. 

News and information about the disease are constantly evolving, and most of us may not necessarily be familiar with some of the medical or technical terms often mentioned. Below, we've defined some common words and phrases as they relate to coronavirus. 

Asymptomatic — Asymptomatic means showing no evidence of disease. 

CDC — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is a federal agency that serves as the leading national public health institute of the United States. 

Communicable — Communicable means "capable of being easily communicated (spread) or transmitted." COVID-19 is a communicable disease.

Community spread — Community spread means some people have been infected and it is not known how or where they became exposed. 

Coronavirus — Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV).

COVID-19 COVID-19 is the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. It is a new strain that was discovered in 2019 and has not been previously identified in humans.

Epidemic — An epidemic refers to an often sudden increase in the number of cases of a disease above what is normally expected in that population in that area.

Epidemiology — Epidemiology is the branch of medicine which deals with the incidence, distribution, and possible control of diseases and other factors relating to health.

Flatten the curve — With protective measures, health officials believe we'll see a lower number of COVID-19 cases. Without protective measures, health officials say we'll see a sharp spike in the number of cases, which would inevitably overwhelm the healthcare system. See the graph referenced here.

The coronavirus pandemic has prompted shutdowns of schools, businesses and events across the U.S. Here are how some states are responding to the outbreak.

Immunity — Immunity is protection from an infectious disease. If you are immune to a disease, you can be exposed to it without becoming infected. Humans don't currently have immunity to COVID-19.

Immunocompromised — Immunocompromised persons have an impaired or weakened immune system.

Incubation period — Incubation period is the period between infection and the appearance of the first symptoms. Currently, the CDC says the incubation period for the novel coronavirus is somewhere between 2 to 14 days after exposure to the virus.

Isolation — Isolation separates sick people with a contagious disease from people who are not sick. Isolation can take place at home or at a hospital or care facility. In addition to serving as medical functions, isolation and quarantine also are "police power" functions, derived from the right of the state to take action affecting individuals for the benefit of society.

Pandemic — The World Health Organization defines a pandemic as "the worldwide spread of a new disease." The CDC expands on that definition: "Pandemic refers to an epidemic that has spread over several countries or continents, usually affecting a large number of people," the CDC website states.

Panic buying — Panic buying has been rife amid the global spread of the novel coronavirus, with consumers around the world stockpiling goods like hand sanitizer, canned foods and toilet paper, resulting in empty shelves, and both supply and demand shocks. "People see photos of empty shelves and regardless of whether it’s rational it sends a signal to them that it’s the thing to do," said Sander van der Linden, an assistant professor of social psychology at Cambridge University.

Safer at home — On Thursday, March 19, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti  issued a "Safer at Home" emergency order, calling on the city's residents to stay in their residences and limit all activities outside of their homes beyond what is absolutely necessary for essential tasks. As outlined in the order, LA residents are ordered to remain in their homes — with lawful exceptions made for critical tasks such as securing food and health, safety and medical necessities, as well as caring for children, elder adults, family, friends and people with disabilities. 

Shelter in place — In general, shelter in place is an order to stay in a safe place indoors due to an emergency (e.g., extreme weather, chemical hazard) until given permission by authorities to evacuate. The CDC says where you should stay can be different for different types of emergencies. Sheltering in place means you must stay at home and can only leave your home for "essential activities" to work for an "essential business" or for "essential travel."

Self-quarantine —  Self-quarantine is when someone isn't ordered to go into quarantine but chooses to do so out of caution. Officials are asking individuals who believe they are well to self-quarantine if they have recently returned from traveling to a part of the country or the world where COVID-19 is spreading rapidly, or if they have knowingly been exposed to an infected person. The typical self-quarantine time period lasts 14 days. Once two weeks pass, if the patient does not have any symptoms, they are instructed to reach out to their doctor for instructions on how to return to their regular routine.

Self-isolation — Self-isolation is voluntary isolation. Everyday people may use this phrase when they aren't infected and are simply social distancing.

Social Distancing — Social Distancing is the practice of reducing close contact between people to slow the spread of infections or diseases. Social Distancing measures include limiting large groups of people coming together, closing buildings and canceling events.

Examples of social distancing that allow you to avoid larger crowds or crowded spaces are:

  • Working from home instead of at the office
  • Closing schools or switching to online classes/learning 
  • Virtually family and friends by using electronic devices instead of in person
  • Canceling or postponing conferences, large meetings, etc.

Stay at home — On Thursday, March 19, California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a statewide order for all residents to "stay at home" amid a coronavirus outbreak. The stay home order is in place until further notice. Essential services, such as pharmacies, grocery stores, takeout and delivery restaurants, and banks, are permitted to stay open. Californians in 16 critical sectors are to continue working despite the order. Those include emergency services, energy and food and agriculture.

Symptom — A physical or mental feature which is regarded as indicating a condition of disease, particularly such a feature that is apparent to the patient.

Virus — An infective agent that typically consists of a nucleic acid molecule in a protein coat, is too small to be seen by light microscopy, and is able to multiply only within the living cells of a host.

World Health Organization — The WHO is the United Nations' health agency. The United States is a member.

Zoonotic — Animals can sometimes carry harmful germs that can spread to people and cause illness. COVID-19 is a zoonotic virus.

The above definitions have been derived from the following: the CDC,, John Hopkins Medicine and the WHO.

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