COVID-19 Glossary of Terms

Community Spread: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, community spread means people have been infected with the virus in an area, including some who are not sure how or where they became infected.

Confirmed positive: A test whose result has been confirmed by the CDC.

Drive-through testing: Health care systems around the country are establishing temporary COVID-19 testing sites outside of their main facilities to minimize the need for potentially contagious patients to enter a hospital, emergency department or traditional clinic (unless the severity of their illness requires acute care). During this interaction, the patient may remain in their car while being tested — receiving an oral or nasal swab directly through their car window — or they may be instructed to walk into a specialized tent to be evaluated face-to-face. Providers wear personal protective equipment to safely administer testing and minimize exposure. This testing is usually done by appointment and based on specific eligibility requirements, including symptoms and other risk factors.

Epidemic vs. Pandemic: Epidemic refers to an increase, often sudden, in the number of cases of a disease above what is normally expected in that population in that area. Pandemic refers to an epidemic that has spread over several countries or continents, usually affecting a large number of people.

Flattening the Curve: Public health officials are asking Americans to practice social distancing to help “flatten the curve.” The curve represents the number of people who are infected with COVID-19 over a period of time. Flattening the curve means slowing the spread of a virus so that there aren’t as many people infected with COVID-19 at the same time. This is important because the U.S. health care system can only care for a certain number of infected patients at a given time. A flatter curve means that the demand for health care does not exceed the system’s capacity.

Furlough: When a person is placed on a leave of absence from work by their employer.

Isolation: This involves separating sick people with a contagious disease from people who are not sick.

Person under investigation (PUI): Someone who has symptoms of coronavirus and has been tested, but is awaiting results.

Presumptive positive: A test result that has been confirmed by the state public health laboratory and for which the specimen will be sent to the CDC [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] for confirmation of the testing result.

Quarantine: Quarantine separates and restricts the movement of people who were exposed to a contagious disease to see if they become sick.

Sensitivity/Specificity: Statistical measures of a test’s accuracy. These measures estimate how many false positives and false negatives might be expected.

  • Specificity measures a test’s ability to correctly give negative test results for those who don’t have a disease. A low specificity will mean more false positives (people who don’t have a disease but test positive).
  • Sensitivity measures how often a test correctly identifies positives (people who actually do have the disease) and how many are overlooked. These are called false negatives.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, when diagnostic testing is negative, the possibility of a false negative result should be considered in the context of a patient’s recent exposures and the presence of clinical signs and symptoms consistent with COVID-19.

Social Distancing: This is a voluntary public health safety intervention used to lower one’s risk of infection by maintaining distance (approximately 6 feet if possible) from others.

State of Emergency: A state of emergency can be declared by the Governor of Massachusetts in the event or imminent threat of a natural or man-made disaster. Under a state of emergency, Chapter 639 of the Acts of 1950, as amended, grants the Governor and other state officials the power to protect the Commonwealth. A state of emergency may cover a specific municipality, multiple communities, or the entire Commonwealth.