This past March 11 marks two years since the official declaration of the SARS-CoV-2 global pandemic. In the ensuing 24 months, many of us have learned new words, or found new usages for old words. Essentially, we have a new glossary of terms. Over the next couple issues, we will explore some of these words and their usages, starting this month with A to G.
Airborne. Most of us would be able to define this as “stuff flying around.” It will also, for some, bring to mind an “overpriced (and potentially unsafe) vitamin pill.“ But in the context of COVID-19, airborne refers to the transfer of microscopic virus-containing particles called aerosols.
Case rate. COVID-19 numbers have been front and centre, both for those working to manage the public health crisis and for those trying to understand it. Unfortunately, numbers can be easy to misinterpret, whether due to lack of understanding, deliberate manipulation, or a combination of both. As a measure of the number of incidents per 100,000 people, using case rate enables direct comparisons between communities of various sizes.
For those looking to dig deeper on COVID-19 transmission, check out Canada’s tracking here.
Coronavirus. Coronaviruses have probably been around for millions of years, first identified in humans in the 1960s as one of the causes of the common cold. The name refers to the characteristic viral spike proteins that project outwards resembling the solar corona.
For more on coronaviruses see here.
Droplets. In the early days of the pandemic, the primary mode of viral transmission was thought to be via droplets. These are extremely small particles of liquid (~10s of microns, each of which is one millionth of a metre) that might contain infectious agents. They’re expelled from the respiratory tract when a sick person coughs, sneezes, shouts, sings, or even just breathes.
The early advice to maintain a six-foot physical distance, and somewhat later, to wear a medical mask, was based on that scientific analysis. Sometime later, the contribution of smaller particles (i.e., aerosols) was revealed, and the masking recommendations were enhanced.
Like everything about this situation (well really, like everything about science in general), it’s a complicated question. Here’s some additional information about some of the considerations and contributing factors.
Endemic. Unfortunately, endemic does not mean “end of pandemic.” The etymology of this word comes from the Greek en (“in“) and demic (“population“). An endemic disease is one that exists in a certain group. In the case of COVID-19, that includes all humans on the planet. Find out more here.
Epidemic. The prefix epi comes from the Greek word for “upon.” This, in other words, is a disease which has come upon or is widespread in a population.
Fomites. A fomite is an inanimate object which can carry infectious agents such as viruses. A study in the early days of the pandemic reported that the SARS-CoV-2 virus can survive for hours or days on fomites, depending on both the composition of the object and environmental conditions. Subsequent analysis showed that the ability of the virus to be transferred in real-world conditions is likely to be significantly less than the study reported, taking into account the effects of the way the virus is deposited on the surface, and the surrounding conditions. The study also noted that as a virus SARS-CoV-2 is not able to reproduce outside of a living host.
Current recommendations still recommend sanitation practices. Recent findings also suggest that the Omicrom variant is somewhat more transmissible from surfaces.
Greek alphabet. Diseases have often been named for the place where they were first discovered, or where there was a major outbreak. Recently, this practice has changed to a more neutral nomenclature, such as the Greek letters that are now being used to classify SARS-CoV-2 variants. No longer a piece of knowledge limited to Greek-speakers, mathematicians, and scientists, many of us are now learning more about this alphabet, well beyond the first two letters, alpha and beta, from which the word “alphabet” itself is derived.
If you do already know a bit about the origins of the alphabet, you might have wondered why we only hear about a few letters. The WHO has four levels of classification: variant being monitored (VBM), variant of interest (VOI), variant of concern (VOC), and variant of high consequence (VOHC). In most cases, VBMs are assigned a Greek letter, but the public at large is generally only aware of the VOC. Currently, Delta and Omicron are the only strains classed as VOCs, and there are no current strains identified by the WHO as VOCHs.
So far, a few Greek letters have been omitted for various reasons. For example, Nu and Xi, the two letters preceding Omicron. Nu was omitted because WHO officials considered that it would be too confusing to have a “Nu variant”, as English speakers might mistake it for a “new” variant. In the case of Xi, it was skipped because Xi is also the Romanized spelling of a common Chinese name (pronounced “shee”) – Xi Jinping is the President of China. (To further add to the confusion, the proper pronunciation of the Greek letter is “ksi”. )
More on variant classification here.
Infodemic. Coined in 2003, the word is not (yet) recognized officially by most authorities. It is a portmanteau, blending “information” and “epidemic,” referring to a rapid and far-reaching spread of information, both accurate and inaccurate. As facts, rumours, and fears mix and disperse, it becomes difficult to learn essential information about an issue. We have seen many striking examples of this since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has featured varied sources of misinformation ranging from our next-door neighbours to high-ranking political and commercial figures.
Lockdown. Previously used to describe a confinement of prisoners to their cells as a temporary security measure, the term has been used since 2020 to describe societal restrictions (also known as non-pharmaceutical intervention) applied to the general public for the purpose of infection control, including stay-at-home orders, curfews, quarantines, and cordons sanitaires.
Long COVID. A few months into the pandemic, the terms “long COVID” and “post-COVID syndrome” were coined to describe the symptoms of patients who had contracted COVID (sometimes a mild-to-moderate case) but continued to experience symptoms such as pain, extreme fatigue, and brain fog even after the infection was no longer present in the body. For more see here.
Long Hauler. In the trucking industry, a long-haul is a trip of more than 1000 kilometres; the term “Long Hauler” has been repurposed to describe people who are experiencing Long COVID symptoms.
Mutation. Viruses replicate by forcing a host cell’s ribosomes to produce copies of their genetic code (RNA in the case of SARS-CoV-2). Mutations inevitably occur due to copying errors in this process. In many cases, the mutation renders the virus unable to reproduce, but sometimes the changes are beneficial to the virus, enabling it to spread more effectively.
Mute. Previously used as a verb to describe the act of silencing someone or something, or a noun to describe someone or something who cannot make a sound. But as the requirements for physical distancing have resulted in an increased use of videoconferencing, the phrase “You’re on mute” has become commonly heard.
Myocarditis. An inflammation of the heart muscle, and pericarditis is an inflammation of the lining outside the heart. These two conditions were linked to the mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines, particularly in adolescents and young adults. Though this finding caused much concern regarding the safety of the vaccine, the evidence-based scientific response was still to advise vaccination in most cases, since there is a much higher risk of cardiovascular complications if a person contracts COVID-19.
N95. Previously known mainly to medical professionals or people working in dusty environments, what most people call an N95 mask is properly referred to as an “N95 filtering facepiece respirator.“ This device (when properly fitted) is able to filter out at least 95 percent of airborne particles. Read more about how and when to use masks.
Pandemic. An epidemic which has become widespread, generally affecting a large number of people is classified as a pandemic. WHO declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic on March 11, 2020.
R-naught. Often written as “R0,” this measure of the transmissibility of a disease represents the number of people that are likely to contract the disease after contact with an infected person. This information can be used to best determine appropriate personal and public health measures for infection control.
RNA. Ribonucleic acid encodes information used in coding, regulation, and expression of genes. Some viruses, including SARS-CoV-2 are composed of RNA (others are made of DNA). Read more.
SARS. Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) was first identified in 2003; the epidemic was contained by 2004. The virus that caused this disease was called SARS-CoV. The current COVID-19 pandemic is caused by SARS-CoV-2, a closely related virus. Read more.
Spike Proteins. The protuberances that give the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus its name also give it the ability to target and enter the cells of its host. Additional study has found that these components also contribute to the vascular damage caused by the virus. Read more.
Vaccinazi. This is one example of a number of attempts by COVID deniers and antivaxxers to draw a parallel between public health initiatives and policies implemented by Nazi Germany against Jews and other groups. These actions have included vaccine opponents displaying replicas of yellow Jewish star badges, and claims that vaccine mandates violate the Nuremberg code. Read more.
Wastewater signal. Known “affectionately” by public health workers and epidemiologists as the “poop signal,” it helps fill the information gap that has resulted from reduction in testing, reporting, and contact tracing.
Zoom. Previously an onomatopoeic word describing a fast and/or buzzing movement, Zoom video communications was in the right place at the right time for their videoconferencing software to become the vehicle of choice for people to stay connected while confined to their homes.
Do you have a favourite pandemic word or phrase? Let us know in the comments.
Comments on “Our New Vocabulary: From Airborne to Zoom”
Perhaps the reason the Greek letter Xi was not used in the naming of COVID variants was that they didn’t want it to sound as if a new disease was being named after the Chinese premier.
Xi was skipped because it’s the name of the president of China, who would be mightily annoyed to have a virus variant named after him. Imagine a variant named “Biden”!
Great article! Note that “R-naught” is often called the “R-factor” or just “R” in this context. Also “case rate” is known to many scientists as “incidence rate”.
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