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A COVID-19 Glossary - Understanding the terms


While “coronavirus” has commonly come to mean the specific virus spreading around the world right now, technically speaking, it is the name of a family of viruses.

'Coronavirus’ actually refers to a handful of diseases, the concept of coronavirus isn’t new. The term refers to a group of viruses that are known to cause respiratory issues. So even though many are referring to the illness circling around right now as “coronavirus,” that’s not actually the name of the disease.


COVID-19 broken down stands for “coronavirus disease 2019.” COVID-19 is what experts are calling this particular disease, meaning it’s a new type of coronavirus that was not previously known or understood by health experts.


This is the technical name for the new coronavirus. Being infected with SARS-CoV-2 can cause COVID-19.


When an individual shows symptoms of having the disease. These symptoms can include fever, tiredness, and dry cough. Some individuals may have aches and pains, nasal congestion, runny nose, sore throat, or diarrhea. These symptoms are usually mild and begin gradually.


Some people become infected but don’t develop any symptoms and don't feel unwell. Asymptomatic means without symptoms. The reason it’s being brought up during this outbreak is because many people are worried that people might be able to pass along the virus when they don’t have symptoms or know that they are sick, which would be “asymptomatic transmission.”

Community Transmission

When referring to how a disease is spread, one of the methods is community transmission. In the case of COVID-19, it means that an infected person has not come into contact with anyone who is infected and that the source of the infection is unknown.

Contact Tracing

Contact tracing is what public health authorities use to track a virus's spread. It involves three steps.

1. First is contact identification. Once a person is infected and symptomatic with a disease, the person is asked about their activities and their interactions with others.

2. That's followed by contact listing. Once contacts with the infected person are identified, they're informed of their status and advised to get early care if they begin to develop symptoms. If they are considered high risk, they may also be advised to isolate themselves.

3. Finally, there is contact follow-up, where doctors get in touch with people who came into contact with the infected person to see if they begin to develop symptoms.

Endemic, epidemic and pandemic

A disease that is endemic is one that re-emerges on a seasonal basis, occurring at a predictable rate in a certain area or among a set population, such as malaria, influenza etc.

Epidemic is used when the number of infections rises above what is normally expected in a certain population or region. An outbreak is basically the same thing as an epidemic, although the term is often used to cover a more limited geographic area, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  

Pandemic relates to the geographic spread of a disease. The WHO designated COVID-19 as a pandemic on March 11, citing the spread of the new virus to several countries.


A city or country where an outbreak is most pronounced.

Flattening the curve

Flattening the curve refers to a graph that illustrates the spread of a disease and the ability of health systems to cope.

If a large number of people become infected and require medical care, it can overwhelm the overall health-care system. This can result in shortages of protective equipment, hospital beds, or even doctors and nurses.

If adequate measures are taken to avoid the spread of infection and fewer patients require medical care, the curve on the graph isn't as sharp, and there would be a better chance that patients can receive the necessary care. This is referred to as "flattening the curve."

Nasopharyngeal vs. oropharyngeal swabs

To be tested for the virus, health-care professionals need to collect samples. This can be done in one of two ways. 

A nasopharyngeal swab can look like an extra-long Q-Tip or a plastic wand with a collection surface on the end. It is inserted up the nose, far back where the health-care professional collects a sample by swabbing. This is the method preferred by the World Health Organization in testing for COVID-19.

However, there is another method of collection available to health-care professionals: an oropharyngeal swab. Instead of going up a patient's nose, the sample is collected orally at the back of a patient's throat.


This is shorthand for "personal protective equipment", and for health-care workers on the front line, it includes isolation gowns, foot covers, eye gear, face masks, and gloves.

Incubation period

The time between when a person is infected by a virus and when he or she notices symptoms of the disease. Estimates of the incubation period for COVID-19 range from 2-14 days, but doctors and researchers may adjust that as more data becomes available.


R0, pronounced "R-naught" is a measurement used to describe the intensity of an outbreak.

R0 is only used when everyone is vulnerable to a disease, meaning no one has had the disease before and therefore has not been vaccinated. As a result, there is no way to control the spread. 

An R0 value of 1 means that each infection will cause one new infection. If it's greater than 1, each infection will cause more than one new infection. This could create a potential epidemic. 

Presumptive and confirmed cases

A presumptive case means that a local health agency has received a positive test result from a patient. But the test often needs to be validated with a second test. Some provincial labs, such as those in Ontario, British Columbia, Quebec and Alberta, conduct the second test, whereas other provinces need to send a sample to the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg.

Once two tests have come back positive, it is a confirmed case.

Resolved cases

An infection case is considered resolved when a person is no longer infected with the virus.

Self-isolation vs. quarantine vs. shelter-in-place

Self-isolation applies only to people who are known to be infected, according to some experts. Others use self-isolation as a synonym for quarantine. In both cases, those isolated need to stay at home and keep away from people who are not sick.

Quarantine describes separating and restricting the movement of people who may have been exposed to a contagious disease to see if they become sick. People who are quarantined could be healthy and are not necessarily infected.

Shelter-in-place is used in some parts of the U.S. and broadly means to quarantine. People are asked to stay at home with only limited exceptions, such as briefly shopping for essentials or going outside for exercise while still staying away from others.

Social distancing vs. physical distancing

“Social distancing” refers to a number of measures designed to reduce the spread of COVID-19, essentially by keeping people away from each other so they don’t pass along the virus. These include things like staying at least two metres away from others, staying inside as much as possible and avoiding large gatherings, and avoiding contact with people who are at a higher risk of severe illness, like the elderly or people with certain chronic health conditions.

The World Health Organization stressed on March 25 that it is no longer using "social distancing" in its updates. It now prefers the term "physical distancing" to remind people to stay in touch with the elderly and other vulnerable groups.



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