AS EVERYONE STRUGGLES through the coronavirus pandemic, unfamiliar terms are everywhere. Phrases such as social distancingalso now referred to as physical distancing, as well as droplet transmission and personal protective equipment are becoming part of the vernacular – but what do they really mean? Here’s a glossary of coronavirus-related terminology.

Community spread. Community spread of the coronavirus means people living within an area have become infected, including some people who aren’t certain how or where they became infected. For example, they haven’t recently traveled to a country experiencing an outbreak, or haven’t knowingly been exposed to someone with confirmed COVID-19.

Coronaviruses. Coronaviruses are a group of viruses that cause a variety of diseases in humans and animals. They’re named for the distinctive crown-like spikes on the virus surface. Human coronaviruses were first identified in the mid-1960s but have likely existed much longer. All cause respiratory symptoms in disease outbreaks including severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (MERS) and now COVID-19.

Coronavirus tests. Diagnostic testing for coronavirus infection is currently done through a nasal or throat swab. A clinician uses a long cotton swab to take a sample of mucus and other secretions from the back of your throat. The swab enters through the patient’s nose and passes into your throat. This sample is sent to a laboratory for testing. The lab will perform a polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, test, which uses extracted genetic viral material from the sample, to confirm a COVID-19 diagnosis

COVID-19.This stands for the coronavirus disease of 2019, when it was first identified. Originally called the “2019 novel coronavirus,” is the highly contagious disease spreading across most parts of the globe. It is believed to be spread primarily by respiratory droplets from infected people. Fever, cough and shortness of breath are hallmark symptoms. Currently there is no vaccine or proven treatment for the virus that may cause severe respiratory disease, typically pneumonia, requiring hospital intensive care and which can be lethal. However, many people experience few or fairly mild flu-like symptoms and recover within a week or two.[ 

Drive-thru testing. Health care facilities are now running drive-thru COVID-19 testing sites to enable testing of people with symptoms while reducing potential exposure for others. Individual sites may be on medical center campuses or in large parking areas. To be tested, you need a doctor’s order and a scheduled appointment. You roll down your window and a clinician swabs your throat, similar to having a strep throat test. Your sample is processed in a lab and you receive the results within several days to a week. While waiting for results, you should self-quarantine (see this term below) to avoid potentially infecting others.

Droplet transmission. People emit respiratory droplets from their noses and mouths through talking, coughing, sneezing, yelling or even singing. Droplet transmission occurs when a respiratory droplet carrying an organism – like the coronavirus – lands in another person’s mouth, nose or eyes and infects them. Droplet transmission may also occur when someone touches an inanimate object (or fomite) that’s recently been contaminated with infected droplets and then touches his or her own face.

Elective procedure. A surgical, medical or dental procedure that is not urgent or immediately needed (like a knee replacement) is considered elective. Elective procedures are being canceled or delayed during the coronavirus pandemic in an effort to limit the spread of the virus.

Epidemic. An epidemic is a significant, often sudden increase in the number of cases of an infectious disease that rises above what’s usually expected for a population in a certain geographic area. (Endemic refers to the baseline or typical level of the disease in that area.)

Flatten the curve. The COVID-19 “curve” refers to the trajectory of how the disease spreads. On a graph, an early, high curve reflects a surge in cases that can overwhelm the health care system in a country, leading to shortages in intensive care beds and lifesaving equipment. By implementing population-wide measures like social distancing early, the onset of cases can be delayed with more time for hospitals to prepare and fewer total cases resulting. On a graph, the flatter curve rises more gradually with a lower peak of total cases.

Fomite. This describes an inanimate object or surface that could act as a vehicle for transmitting an infectious organism like the coronavirus. It may be possible that a person could get COVID-19 by touching a fomite contaminated with the virus and then touching their own mouth, nose or eyes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fomites can include household utensils, door handles, light switches, blankets, faucet, paper tissues, cloth gowns, phones and sponges among many other frequently touched items.

Incubation period. The incubation period for a disease is the time from which you’re exposed to the organism – such as a virus or bacteria – by which it’s caused until you develop the first symptoms. Evidence so far suggests that the incubation period for the virus that causes COVID-19 may range from two to 14 days, according to the CDC. You are contagious during this time, even if you’re not yet showing symptoms, or asymptomatic.

Immunocompromised. People with a weakened immune system are sometimes described as being immunocompromised. Cancer patients in active treatment, people being treated for autoimmune conditions like lupus, pregnant women and others may have weaker immune systems, which may make them more vulnerable to COVID-19 transmission or symptom severity.

Isolation. Isolation is used to separate someone with a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19 from others to avoid transmitting the disease. In facilities such as hospitals or nursing homes, isolation typically requires the person to be moved into a separate room. Self-isolation or home isolation is when someone with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 who is in stable condition (not requiring hospital care) stays at home, ideally in a separate bedroom.[ 

Morbidity and mortality. These statistics, which are being tracked and updated daily, refer to cases of illness (morbidity) and deaths (mortality) due to COVID-19.

mRNA-1273 vaccine. An experimental vaccine called mRNA-1273, developed by the biotechnology firm Moderna as a candidate to protect against the novel coronavirus, is in early stages of clinical trials with healthy adult participants.

Novel coronavirus. Scientists use the word “novel”to distinguish the new form of coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) currently making people sick from previous types of coronaviruses (such as SARS and MERS). Because it is a novel virus that no one has previously been exposed to, that means no one has had a chance to build immunity (with the possible exception of people who have recently recovered from COVID-19).

Pandemic. When a disease has rapidly spread across many nations, the World Health Organization makes the determination whether it is has risen from epidemic to the level of a pandemic – meaning it has spread across a large international region or worldwide. On March 11, the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Personal protective equipment is specialized clothing or gear used to prevent contact with infectious or hazardous materials. PPE to protect wearers – likehealth care workers – from exposure to the coronavirus includes gloves, gowns, surgical masks, respirators, face shields and goggles.

Physical distancing. When people emit respiratory droplets, virus transmission has the potential to occur when people are in close quarters. Keeping a physical distance between yourself and others is a key recommendation for preventing the spread of infection. Steps include staying at least 6 feet away from other people and avoiding public gatherings. The term is replacing “social distancing” to highlight awareness that people need to remain socially connected even while physically apart from one another.

Quarantine. People who have been exposed to a communicable disease, who themselves are not yet sick, are sometimes placed under quarantine to separate them from the general public until it’s clear they won’t spread the infection. Quarantine has recently been imposed on people in specific locations where multiple COVID-19 cases have occurred or have the high potential to occur, such as individual cruise ships or nursing homes.

Remdesivir. The experimental antiviral drug remdesivir is being tested against the novel coronavirus in several clinical trials. Remdesivir is made by Gilead Sciences.

Respirator. Respirator masks, also called N95 masks, are close-fitting masks made from cloth-like filter material that protects wearers from inhaling infectious particles. Respirators are issued to health care workers who are properly fitted in an annual, 15-minutes test to identify the correct size, make and model for them to ensure the mask effectively seals their nose and mouth from tiny particles.

SARS-CoV-2. Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, or SARS-CoV-2, is the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. A scientific group called the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses gives viruses names that reflect their genetic structure and allow them to be grouped with similar viruses for research purposes, including the development of diagnostic tests, medications and vaccines.

Self-quarantine. Self-quarantine is a voluntary decision made by someone who has been either exposed or potentially exposed to COVID-19, for instance from an infected family member, to stay away from the public to avoid possibly spreading the virus.

Shelter in place. Traditionally, the term “shelter in place” has been used in the context of natural disasters like tornadoes or events like terrorist attacks. Literally, it means: Stay wherever you are, such as your workplace, a shop or at home, until the threat is gone. Now, the term is morphing to also mean: Stay at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some areas – states, cities or counties – have issued shelter-in-place orders, urging people to stay home to help prevent the spread of disease.

Social distancing. This encompasses a range of public health measures to put space between people and limit the spread of a contagious disease. Canceling events such as festivals and conferences, limiting the number of people in gatherings, shifting office employees to telecommuting, closing schools and nonessential businesses, confining restaurant meals to take-out only and restricting nursing home visitors are examples of social distancing.The term is being replaced by “physical distancing” to emphasize that people should still try to stay socially connected while putting physical distance between oneself and others.

Stay-at-home order. Stay-at-home orders are issued by governors, or leaders like the District of Columbia mayor. Residents are not permitted to leave their homes, with certain exceptions that may vary by location, such as obtaining groceries or necessary supplies, seeing a doctor, exercising (while practicing physical distancing) or traveling to work at essential businesses. (Some localities use the term “shelter in place” instead of “stay at home” in their orders.)

Superspreader A superspreader is an individual who transmits an infectious disease to multiple other people. Superspreader events can occur in environments where many people are in close quarters for sustained periods, such as the coronavirus outbreaks originating in some nursing homes, cruise ships and church gatherings.[ 

Telemedicine. Telemedicine uses technology, such as videoconferencing and remote patient monitoring, to provide real-time health care at a distance and allow doctors and patients to communicate and consult from afar. With the current widespread restrictions on in-person office visits, the use of telemedicine by medical and dental practices is rapidly expanding.

Underlying medical condition. Recent data from China and Italy suggests that people with underlying medical conditions (and older adults) are more vulnerable to severe complications and death from COVID-19. These underlying conditions include cancer, lung diseases like COPD,diabetes and autoimmune diseases like lupus.

Ventilator. A ventilator is a machine that supplies oxygen to the lungs of a patient with severe respiratory problems when oxygen levels in the patient’s bloodstream drop below a certain point. So that the ventilator can deliver oxygen to the patient, a tube is placed down the patient’s throat, or intubation, to open up the patient’s airways. Many hospitals in the U.S. face possible ventilator shortages as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to spike.

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