Humans and Health

Handy Guide To COVID-19 Terminology

Do you know your surgical face masks from your face coverings? What about the difference between R and R0? In this handy guide, Ruth Bentley guides you through the words and phrases that have defined the coronavirus crisis.

Basic reproduction number (R0): The average number of people that one infected individual will infect in a population where everyone is susceptible. R0 estimates for COVID-19 vary from 2.2 to 6.5.

Coronaviruses: A large family of viruses which may cause respiratory diseases in humans or animals. They range in severity from mild infections such as the common cold to potentially fatal diseases such as SARS.

COVID-19: A highly infectious respiratory disease caused by the most recently discovered coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. The new disease was discovered in Wuhan, China in December 2019. COVID is an abbreviation of Coronavirus disease.

Epidemic: A disease that affects many people at the same time in a region or community where the disease is not typically found.

An R value of 1 means that each infected person is expected to give the disease to one other individual

Effective reproduction number (R): The average number of people that one infected individual will infect in a population containing susceptible and unsusceptible individuals. In practice, R becomes more important than R0 for predicting the future spread of a disease as there will always be certain people who are unsusceptible. This could be due to prior infection which has led to immunity or due to immunisation. An R value of 1 means that each infected person is expected to give the disease to one other individual. R=1 is an important threshold as R>1 will lead to the number of cases increasing, whereas R<1 will lead to the number of cases decreasing and is necessary for a disease to be eliminated.

Face covering: Any material that can be tied around the head to enclose the mouth and nose. Examples of face coverings include homemade masks, bandanas and shop bought masks. On the 24th July it became mandatory to wear a face covering in shops and supermarkets as well as when travelling by public transport. Impact has previously written all about the different types of face coverings.

Flatten the curve: The “curve” scientists are referring to is the epidemic curve which predicts the number of people who will contract COVID-19 over a set time. Its shape varies depending on the rate of infection. A high rate of infection leads to a steep curve and the number of cases becomes high very quickly. This can put strain on health services as they are overloaded with many patients at the same time. Flattening the curve involves reducing the rate of infection so that the same number of people get infected but over a longer period of time. This leads to a less stressed health care system as there are fewer hospital visits on any given day. Methods to lower the rate of infection include vaccination, social distancing and practicing good hygiene.

Graphical representation of flattening the curve. A red peak is tall and narrow compared to the yellow peak which is broad but shorter

Incubation period: The time between an individual becoming infected by a pathogen—a microorganism that causes disease—and the occurrence of symptoms.

Novel coronavirus: Title given to a newly discovered coronavirus before an official name is decided upon.

Pandemic: An epidemic that has spread across the globe. On the 11th March, the WHO declared the COVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic due to its worldwide spread.

Respiratory droplet: A small drop of moisture which leaves the mouth whilst coughing, sneezing or speaking.

SARS-CoV: Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus, the virus behind the coronavirus epidemic of 2003 which began in China and spread to 26 countries resulting in more than 8000 cases.

SARS-CoV-2: Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, the virus behind the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Support bubble: An arrangement where the members of two different households are not required to socially distance and may behave as if they are one household. At least one of the households involved must be either an adult living alone or a single parent with dependent children.

Image of surgical face masks

Surgical face mask: A specific type of disposable face covering that must meet certain design and safety requirements. These masks are mostly intended for health care workers in order to protect patients. (Distinct from face covering, above)

Transmission: The spread of infection from one person to another caused by pathogens. There are three types of transmission: airborne, droplet and contact. Contact transmission is the most common with pathogens being spread by either direct or indirect contact. Indirect transmission occurs when pathogens are passed from one person to another by means of a contaminated object whereas direct transmission involves body to body contact.

Ruth Bentley

Featured image by Fusion Medical Animation from Unsplash. License found here. No changes made to this image.

In article graph representing flattening the curve by Johannes Kalliauer from Wikimedia. Licence found here. No changes made to this image.

In article image of surgical face masks by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels. License found here. No changes made to this image.

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