The Language of COVID-19

It is a strange, new world out there.  And by out there, I mean I hope you are all staying at home as much as possible.  We all must do our part; this we all know. 

News-TV offers a non-stop, progressive, constantly updated news stream regarding the latest statistics:  new infections, new guidelines, new research, and, unfortunately, new deaths.  As I write, the numbers continue to rise, our nation—and the world—has not yet seen the peak. 

So, keep doing all the right things.  You know what they are.

What you may not know is the new language that is being spoken, printed and used regarding the novel coronavirus. 

So, let’s start there.  The coronavirus is actually a family of viruses that have been around for years; they were first identified in the mid 1960’s.   The one affecting the world now is a new strain, thus the word novel has been added.   Most of us have heard of the SARS virus that struck in the early 2000s ; its technical name is SARS CoV.  This novel coronavirus sweeping the world is known as SARS CoV-2.

Animals can be infected with coronaviruses, and those viruses can evolve to make people sick as well, thus creating a new coronavirus.  Researchers have determined this was how the COVID-19 virus originated. 

So why is it called coronavirus?  Because corona is the Latin word for “crown,” and under a microscope, the virus has crown-like spikes on its surface. 

And why is it called COVID-19?  CO for corona, VI for virus, and D for disease.  Hence, COVID.    “19” was added because it was identified in 2019.

Several acronyms have been used frequently in the news, with the CDC being one of the most common.  The Centers for Disease Control—CDC—is the leading national public health institute in the United States, and it is part of the Department of Health and Human Services.  Its primary home is in Atlanta, Georgia, and its primary functions are research and education to promote public health protection. 

The World Health Organization—WHO—is located in Geneva, Switzerland.  It is an agency of the United Nations, specializing in worldwide public health—much like the CDC, only on an international level. 

The terms “endemic,” “epidemic,” and “pandemic” can sometimes be defined loosely, and may be more fluid as diseases change.  In general, however, the differences are listed below:

Most of us are familiar with the term “epidemic.”  Backing up, lets first define “endemic.”  A disease is said to be “endemic” if it is localized to a certain, relatively small area, or to a certain group of people.  A good example is malaria, which is endemic to parts of Africa.  It is also used to describe certain plants or animal species that are specific to one area.

“Epidemic” is used to describe a widespread occurrence of an infectious disease in a particular community at a particular time.  We have all heard of the flu epidemic that travels through your house, your town or perhaps your region.

“Pandemic” is the word we have, sadly enough, become very familiar with.  Consider a pandemic an epidemic that can—and does, as we have seen—travel worldwide.  Remember the letter ‘p’:  the pandemic has a passport to travel worldwide.

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PPE is another acronym we have heard a lot about recently.  “Personal protective equipment” refers mainly to the gear necessary for medical personnel to do their jobs, while at the same time protecting themselves.  Face masks and shields, gloves, gowns and other bodily coverings that cover faces, hands and clothing are considered PPE.  They are necessary for medical personnel to shield themselves from transmission of the virus, although sometimes it cannot be prevented.  As you have likely seen on the news, there are “novel” forms of PPE being used, including home-made cloth masks, use of plastic normally used for garbage bags or other purposes being used to cover one’s body for protection.  The international shortage of PPE has prompted this creativity. 

The simple surgical face mask is the one most commonly seen and used.  It protects the wearer from larger droplets, splashes or sprays or other hazardous airborne fluids.  It also protects others from the wearer’s respiratory secretions.  It fits relatively loosely, and does not require a seal check.   Therefore, there is room for secretions to spread in and out of it, thus not guaranteeing safety.    The home-made versions are likely less protective than these, but any covering is helpful.  The N-95 respirator is called as such due to the fact that it filters out at least 95% of airborne particles, large ones as well as the smaller ones that the basic surgical mask may not shield the wearer from.   It requires a specific fitting and seal check each time it is donned.  These respirators are in a greater shortage at this time, which explains why they are not more widely used.

A ventilator is a complex medical device that provides mechanical ventilation when a person is not able to breathe well enough independently to sustain life.   There has been a shortage of these nationwide, as they are all too often required to sustain the life of a person with severe COVID-19.  In decades past, the term “respirator” and “ventilator” have been used interchangeably, but contemporary terminology draws this clear distinction between the respirator described above as a high-tech mask, versus the ventilator, which is a complex mechanical device that can save a person’s life by providing artificial respiration.  The ventilator requires that a tube is inserted into the patient’s airway in order to mechanically provide in-and-out respiration.

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Social distancing needs no definition.  Isolation is the simple, precautionary act of separating yourself from most other people, which is what most of us are hopefully doing when we are not at our essential jobs, or performing essential tasks such as going to the grocery store.  Quarantine is a more strict affair, whereby you carefully separate yourself from others if you have been exposed to the virus, or if you have been diagnosed with the virus and do not require hospitalization.   Using disposable dishes, washing your own laundry separately in hot water and drying in a hot dryer are recommended.  Using extreme caution and washing hands frequently cannot be stressed enough.

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Corona does mean “crown.”  We may all feel as if it is indeed a ruler wearing a crown right now, dictating our every action.   There will come a time when the worst is passed, and we will come out rulers of our own lives once again.  It will likely be a new world with new rules and recommendations, but as a group, humans are up to the challenge.  We will meet it, too, just as we have met the COVID-19 challenge.    Until then, keep doing your part.