Glossary of COVID-19 Terms

Glossary of COVID-19 Terms

March 15, 2020 – With cases of COVID-19 spreading across the globe, individuals, for now, are adapting to a new way of life.  And with that comes a new vocabulary. Below is a simple explanation of the terms used to explain COVID-19 and the community’s response.


Coronavirus – The family name of the disease. And there are many of them. Coronavirus diseases can cause everything from the common cold to SARS and MERS. This new strain, or novel (new) coronavirus (COVID-19) is one that hasn’t been identified in humans previously. They are called Coronavirus because of the crown-like spikes on their surface, resembling a crown.  Or Corona in Latin. 

COVID-19 – This is the general name for the disease.  In general terms, people still may refer to COVID-19 by its family name “Coronavirus”.  COVID-19 is so named because it’s a COronaVIrus Disease that appeared in 2019. 

SARS-CoV-2 – This is the actual name of the virus that causes COVID-19 within the Coronavirus family.  The numeral 2 is because the official viral name for the virus that caused the SARS outbreak in 2003 was called SARS-CoV, and this new virus is closely related. 

Community spread – The outbreak has spread outside of where it originated. For instance, initially, COVID-19 was seen in patients who were known to have traveled to an area with the disease. Community spread means that the patient has now passed it to someone else in their community. 


Social distancing  – This is the new buzz word. This means you are avoiding groups and keeping away from each other in small group settings. Approximately 6 feet away. And No. This has nothing to do with Facebook or social media.  


Congregate settings  – Basically this is the grocery store, a movie theater, the mall. These are the places (if still open) where you would practice “Social distancing”. 


Close contact – You will hear health officials use this term when talking about how they decide who will be tested. “Was the individual in close contact with the infected?”.  Close contact is being defined as:  

  • Being within approximately 6 feet of a COVID-19 case for a prolonged period of time. This can mean caring for or living with someone with the disease or even sharing a waiting room.  

– or – 

  • Basically, getting coughed on. This isn’t the only cause, but it’s the simplest explanation. The CDC defines this as having direct contact with infectious secretions of a COVID-19 case.  


Epidemic – This is a rise in the number of cases of a disease beyond what is normally expected in a geographical area, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Frequently, the rise in cases happens quickly. For something like the common cold, thousands of cases in one state or country are to be expected.  But if a disease that usually only affects four or five people a month is infecting thousands, that’s an epidemic. 


Outbreak – Kind of like an epidemic, except this term is usually reserved for very limited geographic areas.  You wouldn’t say there was an outbreak in Illinois.  You would say there was an outbreak in Champaign County.  


Pandemic – This is just a bigger epidemic over several countries.  The World Health Organization reserves the term for “the worldwide spread of a new disease,” not just a few countries. The WHO classified COVID-19 as a pandemic on March 11 


Flattening the Curve – You have probably heard of dozens of times and have seen the viral chart on social media explaining the concept of “flattening the curve (see below).  This concept is not a cure. And this method does not mean cases will be necessarily lower either.  This is a means to control the rate in which it comes.  

Think of it as house guests.  You, hypothetically, are GOING to have hundreds of house guests. They ARE coming. They will fill your beds and eat your food and generally overstay their welcome.  Like our hospital system, you only have so many beds. “Flattening the curve” is basically attempting to spreads those unwanted house guests over a period of months rather than all at once.  

In the case of COVID-19, officials hope to achieve that by measures such as social distancing, closing schools, cancelling large events and, yes, closing restaurants and bars. It is not that our health care system is not prepared, it is simply a matter of numbers – hospitals have only so many beds.   R0 – This is pronounced “R Naught” or “R Zero”.  The R0 gives a value to the average number of people who will get infected by a single person.  A high R0 value means the disease is highly infectious.  COVID-19’s R0 is around 2.5, which is higher than what is seen with seasonal flu.  Here is a breakdown of how an R0 2 value works:  

Quarantine – Maybe you have it.  Maybe you don’t. But you’re separated from people to limit possible exposure. Quarantine is used to separate and restrict the movement of people who may have been exposed, but do not have symptoms to see if they become sick.  


Isolation – You have it. Or you have the symptoms. So you are separated from others because you are potentially infectious from those who are not infected. Isolation for public health purposes may be voluntary or compelled by federal, state, or local public health orders. 


Self-observation Something you should be doing now. Do you have a fever? A cough? Are you taking your temperature? If you are feeling symptoms, self-isolate and call your healthcare provider. 


Active monitoring – This means the state or local public health authority assumes responsibility for establishing regular communication with you because you were potentially exposed.   


##  Information compiled from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, The Illinois Department of Public Health and The World Health Organization.