COVID-19 Glossary

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respiratory system

The entire system that lets you breathe. Not just your lungs, but your nose, your airways, your trachea, your mouth and your diaphragm are all a part of the respiratory system.


Ribonucleic acid; a type of genetic material. Humans, plants, animals, bacteria and some viruses have both DNA and RNA. In humans, DNA stores the information that says how to code our body, while RNA reads that DNA and helps make the proteins and enzymes that make things happen. Sometimes, the RNA can make things happen on its own, too. Coronavirus is an RNA virus or ribovirus, which means that drugs that treat it need to somehow block the virus’ RNA from invading our cells.


A way to sequence DNA and RNA in near real time. Most tests for coronavirus are RT-PCR tests. These tests have a high rate of false negatives but a low rate of false positives, so most people are tested twice. 



Another coronavirus that caused an outbreak in the mid-2000s. Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) was not as infectious as SARS-CoV-2, but it did have a much higher fatality rate.


The novel coronavirus that was first noticed in Wuhan, China, and is responsible for the current outbreak. The disease it causes is called COVID-19.

secondary infection

A separate, unrelated infection caused by another disease. Bacterial pneumonia is a secondary illness that can be caused by COVID-19.


To refrain from any contact with other individuals for a period of time (such as two weeks) during the outbreak of a contagious disease usually by remaining in one's home and limiting contact with family members. The verb is fairly recent, showing evidence of use only within the past 20 years or so. The noun has been in occasional use prior to this in the 20th century.

serological survey

A survey that looks for immune cells in a person’s blood. Serological tests are a way to tell if someone was once infected with a disease and then got better. 

shelter in place

All residents must remain at their place of residence, except to conduct essential activities, essential businesses, and essential government functions.

situation report

The World Health Organization releases daily situation reports that track the spread of and fight against coronavirus across the world.

social distance

The avoidance of close contact with other people during the outbreak of a contagious disease in order to minimize exposure and reduce the transmission of infection. The practice of maintaining a greater than usual physical distance from other people is referred to as social distancing, in use since 2003; the verb is socially distance. 

stay at home order

A stay at home order directs people to limit movements outside of their homes beyond essential needs. This limits social interactions to help prevent the spread of disease.


Also written as superspreader. An individual who is highly contagious and capable of transmitting a communicable disease to an unusually large number of uninfected individuals. The term for the spread of disease by super-spreaders is super-spreading.

Supplement, nutritional

Drinks that can be used in addition to meals to increase intake of calories and nutrients.

suspected case

A person who may have a disease because of their symptoms and risk factors based on current guidelines. This person either had no test or an inconclusive test.

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