19 Coronavirus Buzzwords, Defined

All the coronavirus terms out there can get confusing, so we’re breaking down the ones you’re hearing most–and what they might mean for you.

by Sarah Ellis Health Writer

Confused by all the COVID-19 related terminology flying around? We get it. It’s a lot, and it’s ever-changing (especially with some states starting to “open up” and loosen social distancing restrictions). Here, we’ll break down what some of the buzziest terms mean for you, your friends and family, and your chronic condition.

1. Antibodies

Antibodies are proteins produced in the blood in response to a foreign invader, such as a virus or bacterial infection. Your body creates antibodies in response to all kinds of threats, from the flu to the chicken pox. In some cases, those antibodies stay around for life and ensure you’ll never get the virus again (chicken pox is one example). That’s why people are all ears about the new COVID-19 antibody tests, which detect that you’ve had the virus and have developed an immune response to it. Unfortunately, it has yet to be seen whether these antibodies indicate some level of immunity, and how long that immunity might last.

2. Asymptomatic

If you’re asymptomatic and have COVID-19, it means you have the virus but aren’t showing any noticeable symptoms. You probably didn’t even know you were sick until you got tested. Right now, most countries aren’t sure just how many cases of COVID-19 are asymptomatic, but studies have shown it could be up to 78%. According to CDC Director Robert Redfield, asymptomatic people can still transmit the virus to others.

3. Community Spread

Community spread means multiple people have been infected within a geographic area, including some who are not sure where they got the virus. With community spread the virus is tougher to track because health officials don’t know who has it and might be passing it to others.

4. Contact Tracing

This is a disease control measure used to try to contain the spread of a virus. Public health officials literally “trace” everyone who has been in recent contact with someone who is infected. In the U.S., this is done by asking the patient to recall everyone they’ve interacted with over the last two weeks. Then, those people are contacted, told they have been exposed, and asked to self-quarantine for 14 days and monitor themselves for symptoms.

5. Containment

This macro term refers to a country’s efforts to “contain” the virus or stop it from spreading within a community. This must be done early on, before a virus’s spread becomes impossible to track. Containment can be accomplished through a variety of measures: widespread testing, contact tracing, or strict isolation guidelines. South Korea is one example of a country that contained COVID-19 through swift regulatory action such as contact tracing and testing 10,000 people per day.

6. Flattening the Curve

You’ve seen it on billboards, heard it from politicians, and read it in the news. But what does “flattening the curve” really mean? Think about the curve-shaped graph of confirmed infections, which increase exponentially by the day as the virus spreads throughout a community. Flattening the curve means reducing the number of daily infections so hospitals aren’t overwhelmed with more patients than they can handle at once. This doesn’t mean fewer people will get COVID-19 overall, but it does mean more ventilators and other crucial equipment will be available when patients need them. Rigorous social distancing is currently the primary method of flattening the curve in the U.S.

7. Herd Immunity

This concept refers to what happens when a large percentage of a community becomes immune to a virus, through a vaccine or through prior infection. This is the only long-term way to stop the spread on a massive scale, because the virus can no longer find eligible hosts to attack. Herd immunity has killed viruses like polio and smallpox, and it is what prevents viruses like measles from spreading widely (other than outbreaks here and there). According to a report from Johns Hopkins University, 50-90% of a population must be immune to achieve herd immunity with COVID-19.

8. High Risk

The CDC lists the following groups of people as being high risk: those over 65 years old, those living in a nursing home or long-term care facility, and those with underlying medical conditions such as chronic lung disease, heart disease, or anyone who is immunocompromised. The risk level varies depending on the medical condition, so talk to your doctor to learn more about your personal COVID-19 risk.

9. Hitting the Peak

Picture the curve-shaped infection graph again. As COVID-19 cases continue to grow by the day, there comes a point at which they will “peak” before going back down. Each state has a different projected peak date, after which models say cases and deaths will start to decline. The problem with predicting a “peak” infection date is that it doesn’t account for the possibility that COVID-19 cases could pick up again when people start going back to work and school. This “second wave” effect happened with the SARS virus in Canada in 2003. A letter from Chinese doctors published in The Lancet warned that a second wave of COVID-19 is highly possible, especially if governments reopen their economies before it is safe to do so.

10. Hydroxychloroquine

This is an immunosuppressant drug approved by the FDA to treat malaria, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis. It is being studied in clinical trials for use in treating COVID-19 patients, based on case reports of patients who received the drug and improved. Still, this treatment approach has yet to be verified as effective, and it is not currently approved by the FDA for COVID-19 except in laboratory and clinical trial settings. Side effects of hydroxychloroquine can include heart rhythm problems, low blood sugar, and anemia – so don’t take it for COVID-19 unless you’ve been specifically instructed to do so by a licensed healthcare provider.

11. Immunity Passports

This is an idea being floated around in countries like Italy and the U.K. Ostensibly, people who have developed COVID-19 resistant antibodies (if they are proven to be immune) could get the go-ahead to resume life as normal, since they may not be susceptible to re-infection. But there’s a big “if” to the idea of immunity right now. The World Health Organization (WHO) stated that there is not currently enough evidence to guarantee immunity for anyone… so the reality of immunity passports may still be a long way off.

12. Incubation Period

This refers to the amount of time between your initial exposure to a virus and when you begin to develop symptoms. For COVID-19, the median incubation period is five days, but it can take up to two weeks for some people to get sick. The catch is that, according to studies, the novel coronavirus spreads the most one to two days before symptoms appear.

13. Isolation

The CDC describes isolation as a measure “to separate sick people from healthy people.” If you are sick with COVID-19 symptoms – even if you haven’t officially tested positive – you should stay home 100% of the time and separate yourself from others in your family by using a separate bedroom and bathroom if possible. (See also: Shelter in Place and Quarantine)

14. Mitigation

When containment doesn’t work, and the disease becomes widespread in a community, governments rely on “mitigation” strategies to slow its spread. The U.S. is currently operating on a mitigation method by asking people to wash their hands, avoid non-essential travel, and socially distance from one another.

15. Presumptive Positive

If you hear a community talking about “presumed cases” or “presumptive positive cases” of coronavirus, it means that these people tested positive for COVID-19 at a public health laboratory, but their results have not been confirmed by the CDC. The CDC states that presumptive positive results should be treated as positive in order to protect public health.

16. Quarantine

This is the practice used to keep someone who might have been exposed to COVID-19 away from others, according to the CDC. For instance, if you’ve recently been traveling outside your state or country, or if you’ve been in a setting where social distancing wasn’t possible, you may be asked by your doctor or your state government to self-quarantine – meaning to stay home and closely monitor your symptoms over the next two weeks. (See also: Isolation and Shelter in Place)

17. Remdesivir

Remdesivir became the first FDA-authorized treatment for COVID-19 when it was granted emergency use in the U.S. It’s an experimental antiviral medication that was once tested as a treatment for Ebola, but it has never before been approved for widespread use. A study from the National Institutes of Health involving 1,063 COVID-19 patients showed that Remdesivir improved recovery time by 31% (an average of four days). Now, the drug’s potential will be tested on a wider scale in hospitals throughout the country.

18. Shelter in Place

This term refers to a governmental order to stay at home due to an emergency. California was the first state to issue an order of this kind on March 19, 2020 and most of the country followed suit throughout the rest of March and April. This may also be called a “stay at home” order. It does not legally prevent people from going outside to do essential tasks, like grocery shopping, doctor’s visits, or trips to pick up a prescription. (See also: Isolation and Quarantine)

19. Social Distancing

Also known as the defining term of 2020 (in our humble opinions), social distancing is the phrase used by the CDC to describe the necessity of maintaining physical distance from other people to slow the spread of COVID-19. The virus spreads through respiratory droplets from an infected person’s nose or mouth, and those droplets can travel up to six feet. So, in order to socially distance properly, the CDC recommends keeping significant space between you and anyone else outside of your home when possible. Social distancing also refers to limiting time outside the home and wearing a mask when you do need to leave your house. This practice is important to protect the health of everyone, not just those who have been exposed.

Herd Immunity Definition: Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology. (n.d.) “Herd immunity.” apic.org/monthly_alerts/herd-immunity/

Sarah Ellis
Meet Our Writer
Sarah Ellis

Sarah Ellis is a wellness and culture writer who covers everything from contraceptive access to chronic health conditions to fitness trends. She is originally from Nashville, Tennessee and currently resides in NYC. She has written for Elite Daily, Greatist, mindbodygreen and others. When she’s not writing, Sarah loves distance running, vegan food, and getting the most out of her library card.