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From A to V: A COVID-19 Glossary

December 13, 2021

The global pandemic we're facing together has sparked a whole new vocabulary. Here, we've listed and defined the key terms you're hearing every day – from long hauler to new variants of concern, such as Delta and Omicron. Staying informed is an important step in staying healthy and safe.

  • This is testing performed on those who have recovered from COVID-19. It's done to determine whether the body has produced antibodies to fight the virus and protect against reinfection.

  • Antigen tests detect the presence of a specific viral antigen. They are commonly used in the diagnosis of respiratory infections that can lead to illness, including influenza viruses and respiratory syncytial viruses. A COVID-19 antigen test looks for proteins (antigens) to detect SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. In comparison to PCR tests, antigen tests offer quick, less-expensive results, but do have a higher risk of false positives.

  • Showing no symptoms, usually referencing a person who has COVID-19 but does not know it.

  • People who live in a common geographic area have become infected but may not know how they came into contact with the virus. For example, they have not had known exposure to an infected person nor have traveled to a high-risk area.

  • A tiny, disease-causing organism named for its crown-like appearance. There are several types of coronaviruses that cause disease in both humans and animals. Coronaviruses cause respiratory symptoms.

  • This is the abbreviation commonly used for the novel coronavirus disease first recognized in 2019. COVID-19 is highly contagious. Its most common symptoms are fever, coughing and shortness of breath. It may cause mild symptoms or no symptoms at all in some people, while it can be severe or life-threatening for others.

  • Currently the predominant variant of the COVID-19 virus in the United States, the Delta variant is more infectious and spreads up to 2x faster when compared with earlier variants, even in some vaccinated individuals. With the dominant Delta variant, the CDC recommends everyone, even those fully vaccinated, wear masks in public indoor places in areas of substantial or high transmission.

  • People naturally emit tiny respiratory droplets from mouths and noses through breathing, talking, sneezing and coughing. Droplet transmission occurs when an emitted droplet containing coronavirus transfers from one person’s nose or mouth to another’s nose, mouth or eyes, infecting them. Droplet transmission can also occur when a droplet is transferred from a "fomite" – an inanimate object contaminated by droplets containing the virus – to another person who comes into contact with that object.

  • Emergency use authorization (EUA) allows the FDA to permit use of new medical products in emergency scenarios while the standard approval process continues. Keep in mind that the COVID-19 vaccines have been safely provided to billions of people worldwide.

  • An unusually large number of cases of a disease, often a sudden increase, above the generally expected number of cases of the disease for a given population or geographic area.

  • A community effort and behavior changes – such as social distancing and remaining at home except for essential needs – put into place to slow the spread of disease. The naturally high trajectory of the curve is “flattened” when disease spread is delayed. This is done in an effort to reduce the overall number of cases as well as the number occurring at any given time so that healthcare staff can prepare needed resources, such as ICU beds, ventilators and personal protective equipment.

  • An inanimate object contaminated with droplets containing virus that can serve as a vehicle for transferring the virus to infect another person. High-touch surfaces such as door knobs, faucets, light switches and phones are examples of fomites.

  • A method of cleaning the hands thoroughly to prevent the transfer of infectious germs. Hands should be scrubbed with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or alcohol-based hand sanitizer should be used.

  • A large part of a population becomes immune to an infectious disease due to vaccination or prior illness. It is generally proposed that 70% or more of a population must be immune to a disease in order to achieve herd immunity. It is always desired to get the most people immune with the least harmful effects – and that’s by vaccination, not by becoming ill with the disease itself.

  • People with immunocompromising conditions or who take immunosuppressive therapies are often referred to as immunocompromised. Examples of people who are considered immunocompromised include patients with cancer in active treatment or being treated for autoimmune conditions. Those who are immunocompromised are at an increased risk for severe illness from the COVID-19 infection.

  • The time between a person's exposure to a disease-causing organism and the person developing symptoms. The incubation period of COVID-19 can range from 2-14 days.

  • Isolation is separating contagious people from others to prevent disease spread. Isolation can occur in hospitals or healthcare settings, with contagious patients treated in separate rooms or units. It can also occur at home, when a person recovering from illness stays in a room or space separate from others who live in the household.

  • A relatively new term, long hauler references people who are no longer positive for COVID-19 but are severely debilitated from lingering health problems. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the COVID-19 infection, can cause damage to different parts of the body including the lungs, heart, nervous system, kidneys and liver. Currently, there is no predictor for who will become a long hauler. The population includes those with both mild and severe cases, young and old, as well as those who were healthy and those who had a chronic condition.

  • Monoclonal antibody therapy is an available treatment for people recently diagnosed with COVID-19. A monoclonal antibody is a medical product produced in a laboratory. These molecules are designed to act just like the antibodies the body would produce to recover from a disease. The therapy is given by intravenous infusion in an outpatient setting. It should be given as soon as possible after a positive COVID-19 test and within 10 days of symptom onset.

  • A messenger RNA vaccine, or an mRNA vaccine, teaches our bodies how to make the protein they need to trigger an immune response to fight off a certain disease. That harmless protein, or even just a piece of a protein, is called the spike protein that is like the one found on the surface of the disease-causing virus. The vaccine enables your body to make antibodies so that when it sees the virus, it already has the defense mechanisms to attack it.

  • We are still learning about Omicron or B.1.1.529, first reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) by South Africa. This latest COVID-19 variant of concern appears to be highly transmissible due to its rapid spread. Scientists and leaders urge people not to panic, as there is much to learn about the new variant.

  • A sudden rise in the number of cases of a disease.

  • Disease spread that extends over a large geographic area – such as many countries or worldwide – and affects a significant portion of a population.

  • The diagnostic polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test analyzes genetic material to see if you are infected with the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, the virus that causes COVID-19. Samples are taken via a throat or nasal swab. Since its authorization in February 2020, the PCR test has been the standard thanks to its accuracy and reliability.

  • Specially designed items that protect the wearer from exposure to infectious disease. PPE includes masks, gloves, gowns and face shields, for example.

  • The practice of keeping at least 6 feet away from others to help prevent disease spread, which is more likely when people interact closely. Commonly called social distancing, the health system calls this physical distancing, as we encourage being safely social through methods like calls, FaceTime and Zoom events.

  • Quarantine is separating and restricting the movement of people exposed to a contagious disease as they wait to learn whether they have become infected. Staying home during this waiting period ensures the person does not infect others while they may be contagious without knowing it. People who are quarantining may or may not become sick. The restriction protects others until the person’s health status is confirmed.

    If a quarantined person learns they are positive, they must then isolate.

  • This stands for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2. It is the official name of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The name reflects the virus' genetic structure and its grouping with similar virus types.

  • In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, this refers to staying home for all but essential functions and restricting person-to-person contact to those who live within the same household.

  • The practice of keeping at least 6 feet away from others to help prevent disease spread caused by droplet transmission. Our communities have seen social distancing promoted through actions like cancellation of large events, closures of schools, salons and gyms, and restriction of restaurant business to carryout-only.

  • A medical product that triggers the immune system to produce antibodies against a disease, just like it would if exposed to the disease itself, so the person develops immunity without getting the disease.

  • A mechanical device that moves air and oxygen through the lungs for a person unable to breathe on their own.

  • Viral load references the amount of virus present in a person’s body. To detect how much virus is present, clinicians may use a person’s blood sample, nasal swabs or other bodily fluids. For example, COVID-19 secretions are collected during a nasal swab.

  • Viral vector vaccines use a modified version of a different virus (such as an adenovirus, which causes cold-like symptoms) to deliver disease-fighting instructions to our cells. With COVID-19 viral vector vaccines, the transporter (in this case the adenovirus) enters a cell in our body and then uses the cell’s internal workings to produce the spike protein, a harmless piece of the virus that causes COVID-19. The cell displays the spike protein on its surface, and our immune system recognizes that it doesn’t belong there. This triggers our immune system to begin producing antibodies and activating other immune cells to fight off what it thinks is an infection. Viral vector vaccines have been previously developed against a number of infectious diseases including Zika virus, influenza viruses, respiratory syncytial virus, HIV and malaria. The single-dose Johnson & Johnson shot is a viral vector vaccine.

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