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Prevea Health

Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) Glossary of Terms


In the midst of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), terms and phrases such as pandemic, community spread and “flattening the curve” are becoming part of everyday discussions. We’ve created a glossary of many of these terms and phrases to help you better understand and navigate this situation that is affecting us all.

Active cases: Those individuals who are currently ill and requiring medical care or are in isolation.

Centers for Disease Control (CDC): The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is the leading national public health institute of the United States. It is a United States federal agency, under the Department of Health and Human Services, and is headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia.

Community spread (community transmission):  The spread of a contagious disease to individuals in a geographic location who have no known contact with other infected individuals or who have not recently traveled to an area where the disease has any documented cases.

Contact tracing: The practice of identifying and monitoring everyone who may have had contact with an infectious person (in this case COVID-19) as a means of controlling the spread of a communicable disease. The contacts are notified that they are at risk by the local health department. Contacts may be quarantined or asked to isolate themselves if they start to experience symptoms and are more likely to be tested for coronavirus if they begin to experience symptoms.

Containment: Refers to limiting the spread of an illness. Because no vaccines exist to prevent a disease (in this case COVID-19) and no specific therapies exist to treat it. Containment is done using public health interventions. These may include identifying and isolating those who are ill and tracking down anyone they have had contact with and placing them under quarantine.

COVID-19: A mild to severe respiratory illness that is caused by a coronavirus (Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 of the genus Betacoronavirus), is transmitted chiefly by contact with infectious material (such as respiratory droplets), and is characterized especially by fever, cough, and shortness of breath and may progress to pneumonia and respiratory failure. NOTE: COVID-19 was first identified in Wuhan, China in December 2019.

Epidemic: A disease outbreak in a community or region.

Flattening the curve: Refers to an epidemic or pandemic curve, a statistical chart used to visualize the number of new cases over a given period of time during a disease outbreak. Flattening the curve is a measurement of mitigation efforts implemented to slow the transmission of infection, so that fewer new cases develop over a longer period of time. This increases the chances that hospitals and other healthcare facilities will be equipped to handle any influx of patients.

Incubation period: The period of time between exposure to an infection and when symptoms begin.

Isolation: The separation of people with a contagious disease from people who are not sick.

Mitigation: Refers to steps taken to limit the impact of an illness. In the situation of COVID-19, no vaccines exist to prevent the infection and no specific therapies exist to treat it; therefore, CDC-recommended mitigation strategies include frequent and thorough handwashing, not touching your face, staying away from people who are sick, social distancing, avoiding large gatherings, and regularly cleaning frequently touched surfaces and objects at home, in schools, at work, and in other settings.

Novel coronavirus: A novel coronavirus is a new coronavirus that has not been previously identified. The virus causing coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), is not the same as the coronaviruses that commonly circulate among humans and cause mild illness, like the common cold. A diagnosis with coronavirus 229E, NL63, OC43, or HKU1 is not the same as a COVID-19 diagnosis. Patients with COVID-19 will be evaluated and cared for differently than patients with common coronavirus diagnosis.

Pandemic: A disease outbreak affecting large populations or a whole region, country, or continent.

Personal protective equipment (PPE): Personal protective equipment is specialized equipment or clothing you use to protect yourself and patients from germs. It creates a barrier between the virus, bacteria or fungi and you. PPE includes gloves, gowns, goggles, masks and face shields.

Presumptive positive test result: A positive test for the virus that causes COVID-19, tested by a local or state health laboratory, is considered "presumptive" until the result is confirmed by the CDC. While awaiting confirmation, people with a presumptive positive test result are considered to be infected.

Public health emergency: In the United States, a public health emergency declaration releases resources meant to handle an actual or potential public health crisis.

Quarantine: Separates and restricts the movement of people who have a contagious disease, have symptoms that are consistent with the disease, or were exposed to a contagious disease, to see if they become sick.

Recovered cases: Confirmed cases where at least 3 days (72 hours) have passed since recovery, which is defined as resolution of fever without the use of fever-reducing medications and improvement in respiratory symptoms, AND at least 7 days have passed since symptoms first appeared.

SARS-CoV-2: Short for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, SARS-CoV-2 is the official name for the virus responsible for COVID-19.

Self-quarantine: To willingly refrain from any contact with other individuals for a period of time (such as two weeks) during the outbreak of a contagious disease usually by remaining in one's home and limiting contact with family members. NOTE: To reduce transmission of a contagious disease during an outbreak, individuals are typically asked by health officials to self-quarantine following known contact with an infectious person or after returning from a region where cases of the disease are widely reported.

Social distancing: Refers to actions taken to stop or slow down the spread of a contagious disease. For an individual, it refers to maintaining enough distance between yourself and another person to reduce the risk of breathing in droplets that are produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. In a community, social distancing measures may include limiting or cancelling large gatherings of people.

Telemedicine/telehealth: The practice of medicine when the doctor and patient are separated and utilize two-way voice, visual or written communication via computer, smartphone or other technology.

Virus: A virus is the smallest of infectious microbes, smaller than bacteria or fungi. A virus consists of a small piece of genetic material (DNA or RNA) surrounded by a protein shell. Viruses cannot survive without a living cell in which to reproduce. Once a virus enters a living cell (the host cell) and takes over a cell's inner workings, the cell cannot carry out its normal life-sustaining tasks. The host cell becomes a virus manufacturing plant, making viral parts that then reassemble into whole viruses and go on to infect other cells. Eventually, the host cell dies.

Viral shedding: When a virus is “shedding,” it is being released from a person’s body through secretions, excretions or body surface lesions, increasing the chance for disease transmission and infection to others. Viral shedding occurs at the onset of symptoms or just before the onset of illness (0-24 hours). Shedding continues for 5-10 days. Young children may shed virus longer, placing others at risk for contracting infection. In highly immunocompromised persons, shedding may persist for weeks to months.

World Health Organization (WHO): The World Health Organization is a specialized agency of the United Nations responsible for international public health. It is part of the U.N. Sustainable Development Group.

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