Our New COVID-19 Vocabulary—What Does It All Mean?


As the public does its part to help stop the spread of disease, health care workers on the front lines are caring for an increasing number of patients with COVID-19. The word “surge” is often used to describe the rapidly growing number of people in need of medical attention, a phenomenon that is already overwhelming hospitals around the country.

Drive-thru testing

Medical staff will take a “swab test” (usually done through the nose) to collect cells to test for COVID-19. These designated testing stations reduce the likelihood of further spreading the illness by allowing you to remain in your car, having the test taken through your open window. (The sample is then sent to a laboratory.) You will need an order from your primary care doctor before you can be tested for COVID-19, and tests are only available to people with symptoms. Testing for COVID-19 is free.

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Anti-viral medicines

A class of drugs used to treat viral infections—not bacterial ones (which are treated with antibiotics). So far there are no FDA-approved drugs to treat COVID-19, but scientists are studying drugs approved for other diseases. There are also several investigational, or experimental, drugs being studied in several hundred clinical trials currently underway in countries around the world. For example, remdesivir is an investigational intravenous drug with broad antiviral activity that researchers have called “promising.” It is being tested in multiple sites in the U.S., including at Yale New Haven Hospital.

Personal protective equipment (PPE)

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“Specialized clothing or equipment, worn by an employee for protection against infectious materials,” as defined by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). In health care settings, PPE may include gloves, gowns, aprons, masks, respirators, goggles, and face shields. The CDC provides recommendations for when and what PPE should be used to prevent exposure to infectious diseases.

Typically, and in a pre-COVID-19 world, health care workers use new PPE for each patient interaction, depending on the patient’s condition, which is why with the expected surge of COVID-19 patients, the supply of PPE in hospitals around the country is expected to run low—or out. These shortages may leave doctors, nurses, and other caregivers ill-equipped to protect themselves while caring for COVID-19 patients.

N95 respirator

Sometimes casually referred to as an “N95 mask,” this PPE is worn on providers’ faces, forming a tight seal around the nose and mouth. Though it looks like a surgical mask, an N95 is actually a respirator that filters out at least 95% of particles in the air. What’s more, it requires a 20-minute “fit test” to ensure proper fitting—and it does not provide adequate protection for people with facial hair. The CDC does not recommend N95 respirators for public use.


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This is a machine to help patients breathe when their lungs are damaged, and they can’t get enough oxygen on their own. A ventilator takes over the work of breathing for a patient to allow the damaged lungs to heal; it is not itself a treatment. As there are no FDA-approved treatments yet for COVID-19, seriously ill patients are given supportive care, including supplementary oxygen and mechanical ventilatory support.


A vaccine triggers the immune system to help it build immunity to a disease. The immune system already has the capacity to react to diseases by producing substances called antibodies that remain in the body to fight them in the future. With a vaccine, you don’t have to get the disease to develop immunity—the vaccine triggers the same process by providing the body with a tiny amount of a germ that has been weakened or killed, but small enough that it won’t make you sick. Vaccines are introduced to the body via injection, mouth, or a nasal spray.

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) is investigating a vaccine to protect people against COVID-19. An experimental vaccine, called mRNA-1273, has been developed by NIAID scientists and their collaborators at the biotechnology company Moderna, Inc. It could take at least a year before this or any other vaccine is available for the new disease.

Click here to learn more about Yale’s research efforts and response to COVID-19.



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