In COVID-19, Crisis Communications

Public health terminology explained.

The coronavirus pandemic is not your normal crisis. Nobody knows with certainty when it will end or the extent of its impacts. It has given way to an entire catalog of new terminology, which is evolving by the day.

It is critical for business leaders to have a clear understanding of this terminology. As such, we put together this guide. We will be updating it regularly, so we encourage you to bookmark it and reference it often.


The virus in this outbreak is named SARS-CoV-2. The disease it causes is named COVID-19. For example, just like HIV causes AIDS, SARS-CoV-2 causes COVID-19. SARS-CoV-2 is part of the coronavirus family, a whole group of viruses that range from the common cold to lesser-known respiratory syndromes. Obviously, SARS-CoV-2 does not roll off the tongue. So, most of us just say coronavirus. 


Novel Coronavirus

You’ve probably heard SARS-CoV-2 referred to as the “novel coronavirus.” This literally means it’s a new coronavirus that has not been identified before. We think that sounds pretty jargony and recommend just saying “coronavirus.”



Coronavirus and COVID-19 are not interchangeable

Use “coronavirus” when you’re talking about the pandemic. For example, “Thousands of schools are closed because of coronavirus.” 



Coronavirus and COVID-19 are not interchangeable

Use “COVID-19” when you’re talking about the disease. For example, “He tested positive for COVID-19.”

In case you’re curious, COVID-19 is an acronym. It comes from “coronavirus disease of 2019.” You’ve probably seen the disease written as “COVID-19” and “Covid-19.” We recommend all capitalized letters. This is the standard used by the Associated Press (AP), Center for Disease Control and Prevention  (CDC), and World Health Organization (WHO).  



CFR is an acronym for the case fatality rate. This is the death rate of confirmed cases.



This refers to people who are diagnosed as contagious and need to be alone. For example, a patient can be in isolation in his bedroom, while the rest of this family is at home in quarantine. 



You’ve probably heard “lockdown” as well. This is more nebulous and is typically associated with more stringent restrictions (ie: government mandates that say you cannot even leave the house to walk your dog). We recommend not using this term at the moment.



PPE stands for personal protective equipment. This refers to medical supplies, like face masks and gloves.



PUI stands for a patient under investigation. The CDC uses this to describe a person who is suspected of having the disease. 



Quarantine does mean staying home because you’re contagious (or might be contagious). You are still leaving for essential things, such as grocery shopping or walking your dog — but nothing beyond that.



This is a mask that filters air particles. For example, the N95 respirator filters 95% of small particles and it’s what’s doctors and nurses typically wear. 


Shelter in Place | Safer at Home

Regionally, you have heard “shelter in place” or “safer at home.” These are synonymous with quarantine. 


Social Distancing

Social distancing doesn’t mean staying inside. It means avoiding crowds and standing at least 6 feet away from others when you’re out. 


Surgical or Facial Mask

These do not filter air particles, but they do keep people from spreading droplets when they cough or sneeze. 



This is a machine that moves air in and out of the lungs. It’s used for patients who cannot breathe on their own. 

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