COVID-19 Glossary of Terms: What Does It All Mean?

COVID-19 Glossary imageBy Cherry Odom, BSN, RN-BC

The current worldwide health threat from COVID-19 can seem confusing at times due to the use of unfamiliar terms. So that you can keep up, here is a quick reference glossary explaining some of the words and phrases.

anticipatory anxiety: worry and fear when thinking about an event that may or may not occur in the future.

CDC: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is a federal agency under the Department of Health and Human Services and the leading national public health institute of the United States. They are a great resource for COVID-19 and regularly post updates on their website [1].

chronic medical condition: a long-term health problem that may not have a cure, such as arthritis, asthma, heart disease, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and others.

community spread: spread of an illness in an area; some people may not be sure how or where they became infected.

containment zone: a specific area where certain measures, such as staying home and restaurants closing except for takeout, are started to try and prevent the spread of a disease.

coronavirus: [2] a large family of viruses that can cause illness in animals and humans. Human coronaviruses commonly circulate in the United States and usually cause mild illnesses like the common cold.

COVID-19: abbreviation for a new strain of coronavirus identified in 2019. CO = corona; VI = virus; D = disease; 19 denotes 2019.

diagnostic test: any test or procedure, such as blood tests, X-rays and various imaging procedures, to determine a health diagnosis or condition.

disinfectant: a chemical, such as alcohol or bleach, that destroys forms of harmful microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses and fungi.

drive-through testing: sites that allow people to drive up and remain in their vehicles for healthcare workers to perform a screening test, such as a nasal swab.

droplets: a small particle of moisture discharged from the mouth during coughing, sneezing or speaking; these may transmit infections while airborne to others.

dry cough/wet cough: dry is a cough without mucous from the windpipe; wet is a cough with mucous produced from the windpipe.

epidemic: an epidemic occurs when an infectious disease spreads rapidly to many people.

facemask: a protective covering for the mouth and nose, which is usually disposable after single use.

flattening the curve: slowing a virus’ spread so that fewer people need to seek treatment at any given time.

hand sanitizer: a liquid or gel used to kill germs on the hands.

hot spots: areas of increased incidence, risk and probability of disease.

immune system: a set of tissues that work together to resist infections.

immunocompromised: having a weakened immune system due to conditions such as cancer, HIV/AIDS or inherited diseases.

immunosuppressing medications: drugs that reduce the strength of the body’s immune system and are used to make the body less likely to reject a transplanted organ, such as a liver, heart or kidney.

infectious disease: disease caused by bacteria, viruses, parasites or fungi and can be spread from one person to another.

influenza: a viral infection, commonly called flu, affecting the airways and lungs.

isolation: hospital guidelines involving specific use of personal protective equipment when entering the room of a patient infected with a disease that is spread either by contact, droplets or airborne particles.

lockdown: a strict order to stay at home and may include curfews, fines and arrests, when people are found outside the home without a valid reason.

screening: a brief assessment for coronavirus symptoms, such as a temperature check and observation for cough or difficulty breathing.

mass gatherings: defined by WHO as an occasion, either organized or spontaneous where the number of people attending is sufficient to strain the planning and response resources of the community, city or nation hosting the event.

MERS-CoV: Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus first identified in 2012.

N95 respirator mask: a protective device made to fit snugly over the mouth and nose to prevent inhalation of airborne particles. This mask will filter at least 95 percent of very small (0.3 micron) particles.

outbreak: a disease that occurs in greater numbers than expected in a community or region or during a season.

pandemic: an epidemic that spreads throughout a whole county or the world.

patient zero: the person identified as the first carrier of a communicable disease in an outbreak of related cases.

PPE: “personal protective equipment,” examples include face shields, gloves, goggles, gowns, head covers, masks, respirators and shoe covers.

quarantine/self-quarantine: the separation of a person or persons who may have been exposed to an infectious disease from those who have not knowingly been exposed to prevent the spread of the disease.

SARS-CoV: severe acute respiratory syndrome caused by a coronavirus, first reported in Asia in 2003.

shelter in place: stay at home and avoid going outside except to obtain essential supplies, such as food and medication.

social distancing: purposely maintaining at least six feet distances away from other people outside of your own household and avoiding gatherings of people.

state of emergency/national emergency: “state of emergency” is a situation that allows the government increased power in a certain area during occurrences, such as civil unrest, natural disaster or a pandemic; “national emergency” is a state of emergency declared due to the danger or threat of danger to a nation.

testing/testing kits: testing for COVID-19 involves a nasal swab using a testing kit, which contains all items needed to do the test and seal it to send to a lab.

transmission: the passing of a disease from an infected person to a previously uninfected person.

travel health restrictions:
Level 1 – (limited community transmission) CDC recommends travelers practice usual health precautions recommended for their destination.
Level 2 – (ongoing community transmission) CDC recommends that older adults and people of any age with serious chronic medical conditions should consider postponing nonessential travel to most global destinations.
Level 3 – (widespread ongoing transmission without restrictions on entry to the United States) CDC recommends that travelers avoid all nonessential travel to a specific list of countries.
Level 3 – (widespread ongoing transmission with restrictions on entry to the United States) CDC recommends that travelers avoid all nonessential travel to certain listed destinations; most foreign nationals who have been in one of these listed countries during the previous 14 days will not be allowed to enter the United States.

upper respiratory tract: upper airways, including the nose, nasal passages, sinuses, throat and air passage, above the voice box.

vaccine: a substance often given as an injection that stimulates a person’s immune system to develop antibodies to help prevent certain diseases.

visitor restrictions: hospital and nursing home requirements that limit visitors in times of flu outbreaks and epidemics or pandemics, such as COVID-19.

WHO: World Health Organization, a specialized agency of the United Nations responsible for international public health, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland.

Sources include CDC [1], NCDHHS [3], WHO [4] and Medical Dictionary for the Health Professions and Nursing.


Reviewed by Jamie Staton, BSN, RN, CIC, an Infection Prevention Specialist with Infection Prevention – Mission Health.

Questions about Mission Health and COVID-19? To keep up to date and learn more, visit missionhealth.org/covid-19 [5].