Coronavirus (COVID-19): A glossary of terms

April 2, 2020 Providence News Team

We’ve compiled a list of key terms to help you navigate the information (and misinformation) that’s becoming part of everyday conversation.

  • Learn how coronavirus differs from COVID-19.
  • Know the difference between isolation and quarantine, and why both are important.


If you’re reading and watching the news about the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, you’re probably seeing a lot of words and phrases that are unfamiliar to you. Or maybe they are familiar to you, but you’re not quite sure what they mean. We’ve compiled a list of key terms to help you navigate the information (and misinformation) that’s becoming part of everyday conversation.

You may want to take a moment to bookmark this page so that you can refer back to it as you are reading and watching the news. Our goal with this glossary is to arm you with the information you need to stay safe and healthy during this pandemic.

You may want to take a moment to bookmark this page so that you can refer back to it as you are reading and watching the news. 

We developed these definitions with help from the following online sources:

Need an explanation for another COVID-19 term? Let us know @psjh. #StayHomeStaySafe         

Disease-Related Terms

Coronavirus: Coronaviruses are common in people and many animals. Only seven coronaviruses are known to cause disease in humans.

  • What is a virus? A virus is a microscopic organism that can only grow and replicate inside a living cell.
  • Why are they called “corona” viruses? The word “corona” refers to any virus in a family of viruses that has crown-like spikes on their surfaces.

Novel coronavirus: “Novel” means it is a new coronavirus not seen in humans before. The scientific name for the novel coronavirus is SARS-CoV-2. It appeared in China in late 2019, and likely originated in bats.

  • What is SARS? Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome is a viral respiratory illness. SARS-CoV-2 is a genetic cousin of the coronavirus that started the SARS outbreak in 2003.

COVID-19: The respiratory disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. It is an acronym that stands for "coronavirus disease of 2019."

  • Who named COVID-19? The World Health Organization announced the disease would be named COVID-19 on February 11, 2020.
  • What is a respiratory illness? Respiratory illnesses affect the lungs and other parts of the body’s breathing system.

Organizational Names

The World Health Organization (WHO): The primary role of this global organization in the COVID-19 pandemic is to lead partners within the United Nations system to fight the disease.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention  (CDC): The CDC is America’s health protection agency. It works with partners at the local, state and national levels to monitor and prevent disease outbreaks, including COVID-19.

Terms related to controlling the spread of disease

Containment: Efforts that will help slow down or prevent the spread of disease. These can include thorough hand washing, physical distancing, self-isolation, self-quarantine and sheltering in place.

Physical distancing (aka social distancing): Physical distancing means intentionally increasing the physical space between people to avoid spreading the virus. Staying at least six feet away from other people reduces your chances of getting COVID-19 because it can spread from person to person through droplets expelled from coughing and sneezing.

Shelter in place: Local, state and federal governments may issue “shelter in place” guidance or orders in times of crisis. Also known as “stay at home” guidances, these typically allow residents to take care of essential needs like going to the store for groceries and the drugstore for medicines. Find out what your state or local government has recommended by doing a search that contains your state/city/county and the words, “shelter in place.”

Isolation vs. Quarantine: Isolation involves separating people who are sick and have tested positive for COVID-19 from people who aren’t sick. Quarantine refers to restricting the movement of people who were exposed to the virus but are not sick to see if they become sick. Isolation and quarantine involve the same behaviors: staying at home, not having visitors, using standard hygiene (like frequent hand washing), not sharing towels and utensils, and practicing physical distancing.

Person-to-person vs. community spread: Person-to-person spread occurs when you become infected through direct contact with someone who has the virus (“someone with COVID-19 coughed on me”). Community spread occurs when someone becomes infected but can’t identify the source of infection (“I don’t know how I came in contact with COVID-19”).

Diagnosis-related terms

PCR testing: This is the gold standard for identifying people who have contracted COVID-19. This test requires a throat or nasal swab and works by identifying the virus' DNA. PCR is an acronym that stands for polymerase chain reaction.

Positive vs. presumptive cases: “Positive cases” refer to people who have tested positive for COVID-19 through a lab test. “Presumptive cases” refer to people who are experiencing symptoms consistent with COVID-19 and have had contact with a person who has tested positive for COVID-19.

Incubation period: An incubation period refers to the time between when a person is exposed to the virus and when symptoms or signs of illness appear. COVID-19 has an incubation period of two to 14 days. In most cases, symptoms appear about five days after infection. People can have COVID-19 and experience little or no symptoms.

Protective equipment terms

Personal protective equipment: Personal protective equipment or “PPE” is equipment worn by health care providers to minimize exposure to hazards that can cause injury or illness, such as infectious diseases like coronavirus disease (COVID-19). There are a lot of different types of PPE. Examples include certain masks, gloves and gowns. This equipment helps to protect providers/caregivers and supports the safety of patients.

Other public health-related terms

Pandemic vs. epidemic: A pandemic is the worldwide spread of a new disease that affects large numbers of people. An epidemic refers to the spread of disease in a more localized region. WHO officially declared the spread of COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11.

Flatten the curve: A graph that shows new COVID-19 cases over time will have a “curve.” If the curve looks like a tall, narrow spike, this indicates a sharp increase in cases. If the curve is flatter, this indicates a slower increase in cases. The goal of flattening the curve is to slow down COVID-19 infections, rather than having the cases all peak in a short period of time. This gives hospitals, doctors, schools and other resources time to respond to the outbreak. Learn more.


Get relevant, up-to-date information on the coronavirus (COVID-19) from Providence.


Find a doctor

If you feel unwell and would like to consult your doctor, consider using telemedicine options. Providence Express Care Virtual connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow-up as needed. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory to search for one in your area.






You can also learn how your state’s department of public health is responding to the situation:




New Mexico




Need an explanation for another COVID-19 term? Let us know @psjh. #StayHomeStaySafe     

Related resources

Providence patients and visitors coronavirus advisory

What everyone should know about coronavirus symptoms

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

World Health Organization novel coronavirus resource page

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

About the Author

The Providence News Team brings you the updates to keep you informed about what's happening across the organizational ecosystem. From partnerships to new doctor announcements, we are committed to keeping you informed.

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