These Are the Words (and Phrases) About Coronavirus Everyone Should Know By Now

Our new normal comes with a whole new vocabulary. Make sure you know what these important concepts really mean.

By now, the term coronavirus has been seared into your brain. The novel coronavirus, which can lead to acute respiratory distress and death, is spreading around the globe. Many countries are taking extreme measures, like social distancing and self-isolation to flatten the curve. The situation is mind-boggling, but even that sentence, itself, is a struggle to process because so many of its words and phrases were unknown to most of us just a month or two ago. Plus, some of the terms being tossed around seem interchangeable, but they’re not—they have subtle but important nuances. Here’s what you need to know to make sense of all the news and communicate more effectively about the pandemic, which, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.


The word itself may seem pretty straightforward, but how is isolation different from quarantine? Both are public-health practices aimed at preventing the spread of a contagious disease, but each serves different purposes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Isolation focuses on separating those who are symptomatic from those who are not yet sick. A quarantine separates those who have been exposed to the virus but who are not necessarily sick yet (or may never be) from the general public. Those who test positive for COVID-19 are asked—or in some cases, required—to practice isolation while they are symptomatic. Those who have been exposed to COVID-19 are asked to self-quarantine, even if they are asymptomatic (not showing any discernible symptoms).

Neither isolation or quarantine is being enforced by federal law during this pandemic, at least not in the United States. For that reason, you’ll often see these words with the word “self” in front of it, as in self-isolation and self-quarantine. That, however, may change as the pandemic continues to spread. Plus, law enforcement may intervene if people are violating social-distancing requirements.

The best thing you can do? Follow the rules, and stay home.

Social distancing

Whereas both isolation and quarantine restrict the movement of a person who is sick or has been exposed to the virus, social distancing applies to people who are neither sick nor known to be exposed to the virus. It is the practice of maintaining enough distance between yourself and another person to reduce the risk of breathing in droplets that are produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Social distancing is now imposed in most of the United States and in many countries, but imposed is not quite as strong a word as enforced. As time passes, however, it is entirely possible that social distancing will be enforced as a matter of law.

Sheltering in place

Also known as sheltering at home, sheltering in place takes social distancing one step further by asking all residents of a jurisdiction to stay home unless it is absolutely necessary to leave the house (for food or medication, to walk the dog, and, in most jurisdictions, to exercise, although this may be changing). A shelter-in-place order is a critical intervention, according to the city of San Francisco, which issued one of the first in the country in March.


Self-monitoring refers to paying attention to one’s health so that if symptoms develop, a person can self-isolate accordingly. Here’s how it all breaks down: We are all being asked to self-monitor out of ethical responsibility. Some states have imposed social distancing. All people who are sick are asked to self-isolate. Everyone who believes they have been exposed to COVID-19 has been asked to self-quarantine. We are all subject to some form of lockdown, however.

FYI, this what people who are infected with coronavirus want you to know.


This is a colloquial term for any kind of public health measure limiting or advising the limitation of movement and exposure to others. You would be hard-pressed to find any place on the planet that is not currently under some form of lockdown with regard to COVID-19. A lockdown does not necessarily mean that a state of emergency is unfolding, however. A state of emergency is a legal declaration made by a jurisdiction that entitles them to receive federal monetary assistance.


The world went into lockdown after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Before that, it had been considered an epidemic, which is defined as a spike in cases of a disease above what is normally expected in a particular localized population. To be considered a pandemic, an outbreak of illness must occur over a wide geographic area and affect an exceptionally high proportion of the population. Here’s more on the difference between a pandemic and an epidemic.

Confirmed case

The Johns Hopkins COVID-19 map, one of the most reliable sources for COVID-19-related facts, tracking the number of confirmed cases—or cases in which a person has tested positive for COVID-19 via a CDC-approved lab. Confirmed cases are distinguishable from cases in which someone is sick with symptoms that resemble COVID-19 symptoms but has not been tested or has not tested positive at a CDC-approved lab. All such cases are presumed positive but don’t get included in counts of confirmed cases. The number of deaths attributable to COVID-19 only counts the number of deaths of confirmed cases. It does not include those who have died who were merely presumed positive (unless postmortem testing turns it into a confirmed case).


Many people have cold and flu symptoms but don’t have COVID-19. One way that medical professionals can tell the difference is by gauging anosmia, which refers to a loss of the sense of smell. In mild to moderate cases of coronavirus, a loss of smell (and therefore taste), is emerging as an early sign of COVID-19. “While fever, cough and shortness of breath are the key classic signs of contracting COVID-19, a recent analysis of milder cases in South Korea found the major presenting symptom in 30 percent of patients was a loss of smell. In Germany, more than two in three confirmed cases had anosmia,” CNN notes.

What else can you expect if you have COVID-19? Find out from a man who survived coronavirus.


At the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, the public health goal was containment—stopping the spread of illness. When containment fails, the goal becomes mitigation, which begins with the idea that “we will probably not drive transmission to zero.” It’s about slowing the spread of the disease and lessening the severity of its impact. When you hear about “flattening the curve,” that is about neither containment nor mitigation. Rather, it refers to the speed at which new cases are being reported in a particular population. A higher-than-average curve means that cases are spreading rapidly, perhaps even exponentially. When that happens, it places the healthcare system under severe stress—not enough beds, not enough manpower, etc. Therefore, it is in everyone’s best interest, theoretically, to flatten the curve.

Face masks

When President Donald Trump recommended on April 3, for Americans wear “face masks,” the goal was not to prevent the wearer from getting sick but rather to prevent asymptomatic people from spreading illness. Face masks, also known as surgical masks, are meant to prevent the wearer from releasing respiratory excretions (also known as droplets), which can infect others. It operates as a barrier, it’s meant to be used once and then thrown away, and it does nothing to prevent the wearer from getting sick. By contrast, N95 masks are aimed at keeping the wearer healthy by filtering out virus particles (as well as allergens and bacteria) and thus prevent the wearer from becoming exposed to the same. N95 masks are also called N95 respirators, and in case you were wondering, this is what the N95 stands for.


As stated above, an N95 mask is a respiratory protective device, part of the personal protective equipment (PPE) needed by medical professionals to stay safe. It is designed to achieve a very close facial fit and is very efficient in filtering airborne particles. By contrast, a ventilator is a medical device used to assist patients who are having difficulty breathing on their own by literally moving air in and out of their lungs. Whereas using a mask or a respirator does not require any medical preparation, using a ventilator requires that the patient be sedated.

For more on this developing situation and how to stay safe, see our comprehensive Coronavirus Guide.

Lauren Cahn
Lauren Cahn is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared regularly on Reader's Digest, The Huffington Post, and a variety of other publications since 2008. She covers life and style, popular culture, law, religion, health, fitness, yoga, entertaining and entertainment. Lauren is also an author of crime fiction; her first full-length manuscript, The Trust Game, was short-listed for the 2017 CLUE Award for emerging talent in the genre of suspense fiction.