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Feeling lost in keeping up with the news? Here’s a guide to understanding key COVID-19 terms

Employees at Northwestern Medicine Huntley Campus tend to a long line of cars at the 8am open of their COVID-19 testing site on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020 in Huntley.

In trying to keep up with the latest news around COVID-19, there are a lot of terms and metrics that can become confusing.

Here is a guide on how to better understand some of these terms and how they interact with one another so that you can stay informed about the state of the pandemic in Illinois.

COVID-19 is often referred to as a novel coronavirus. This means that this particular coronavirus has not been previously identified, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

You may also hear the novel coronavirus referred to as SARS-CoV-2, a scientific name used to set this novel coronavirus apart from other coronaviruses discovered in the past. SARS-CoV-2 is the virus that causes the disease of COVID-19, according to the CDC.

The term COVID-19 is shorthand – CO for corona, VI for virus, D for disease and 19 for 2019, the year it was discovered.

An epidemic is “an increase, often sudden, in the number of cases of a disease above what is normally expected in that population in that area,” according to an educational article published by the CDC.

A pandemic is “an epidemic that has spread over several countries or continents, usually affecting a large number of people,” according to the article. COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11.

An outbreak is defined as five or more cases of the virus that are connected to a common location, such as a school or gathering, over a 14-day period, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

A confirmed case of COVID-19 is a diagnosis that has been confirmed by a laboratory through a molecular test, according to the IDPH.

A probable case is a person that meets clinical criteria for the symptoms of COVID-19 AND is epidemiologically linked to a confirmed case, or someone who has a positive antigen test.

Similarly, a probable death from COVID-19 is a deceased person that meets clinical criteria for the symptoms of the virus AND is epidemiologically linked to a confirmed case, with no confirmed laboratory testing, or someone who had a positive antigen test. A death might also be considered probable if the death certificate lists COVID-19 as a cause of death or a significant condition contributing to death, according to a report from the CDC.

A molecular test, also known as a PCR test, is used to diagnose COVID-19 by detecting the virus’ genetic material, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Most molecular tests are conducted through a nasopharyngeal (part of the throat behind the nose), nasal or throat swab, but some can be conducted using saliva.

An antigen test detects specific proteins from the virus as a method of diagnosing COVID-19, according to the Food and Drug Administration. While positive results are typically highly accurate, false positives can occur, which is why these results are considered to be probable cases until confirmed by a molecular test.

An antibody test, on the other hand, tests whether someone has had COVID-19 in the past by looking for antibodies made by your immune system to help fight off the virus. This test is not used to diagnose COVID-19 and may need to be repeated to ensure accuracy, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

The incubation period of a virus is the time between when someone is exposed and when they begin developing symptoms, according to the CDC. For COVID-19, the incubation period ranges from two to 14 days. A person is contagious and able to pass the virus to others anytime from two or three days before the onset of symptoms to ten days afterwards, on average.

Quarantine is when a person stays home and does not see people outside of their household because they think they may have been exposed to the virus and are waiting for a test result, according to Dr. Viquar Mundozie, a family medicine physician at Mercyhealth Harvard South.

Isolation is when a person knows he or she has been infected with the virus and remains confined to his or her own room and bathroom, if possible, to avoid infecting others, Mundozie said.

A person can stop isolating when it has been 10 days since the onset of symptoms AND 24 hours since their last fever AND when other symptoms are improving, according to the CDC.

Flattening the curve is a term used by epidemiologists, which are scientists who study health outcomes and diseases in populations, according to the CDC.

The curve refers to a visual display of the onset of infections, with the growing number of infections being displayed over a period of time, according to the CDC. To flatten the curve is to broaden the period of time over which infections occur to avoid a quick, large spike in infections that might overwhelm the health care system's ability to care for everyone at once.

Social distancing – maintaining six feet of distance between yourself and others – and the use of face masks help to flatten the curve.

Face masks or face coverings are a form of personal protective equipment or PPE. Medical professionals who work closely with COVID-19 patients require things like gloves, gowns, and face shields to protect themselves from contracting the virus. Those outside of the medical field are simply asked to wear a face mask when in a public place and unable to socially distance, according to the CDC.

Comorbidities, or underlying medical conditions, put individuals at an increased risk for severe illness due to COVID-19, according to the CDC. Severe illness can lead to hospitalization, admission to an intensive care unit, being placed on a ventilator, or even death. Some of these conditions include cancer, chronic kidney disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart conditions and sickle cell disease.

For a full list of conditions and other factors that can put you at a higher risk, visit the CDC’s COVID-19 page and refer to the section titled “People at Increased Risk.”

A ventilator is a machine used to pump air into a patient’s airways when they cannot breathe on their own. For a patient whose lungs have been damaged by COVID-19, a ventilator can help sustain them while their body fights off the virus, according to an article from Yale Medicine.

Kelli Duncan

Kelli Duncan

Kelli Duncan is a reporter for the Northwest Herald covering county government as well as the communities of Huntley, Lake in the Hills, Marengo and Harvard. She has previously covered local politics, immigration and feature stories.