(NEXSTAR) — As omicron continues to surge in the U.S., the coronavirus is once again dominating the news cycle, water cooler talk and happy hour chatter — if you’re still socializing and not locked down at home, that is.
A new wave of the pandemic has meant a new variant, new CDC guidance, new things to worry about and new things making scientists feel hopeful. To help navigate the confusion of this next phase, here are some words to know — and make you feel smarter when reading the news or making small talk.
Close contact, exposure
Both words are used to refer to an instance where you’ve been in close proximity to someone who has SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19), making it possible you’ve been sickened. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines “close contact” as being within 6 feet of an infected person for a total of 15 minutes in a 24-hour period. (For example, if you saw someone for 10 minutes in the morning and then again for five minutes later in the day, that counts.)
Antigen vs. PCR
These are two different types of commonly available COVID tests. We won’t get into all the complex science things that make the two types different, but broadly speaking:
- PCR tests have to be processed in a lab. They are more sensitive, so they are better at catching small amounts of the virus and earlier on. Because they are so sensitive, they may still show positive results for weeks or even months after someone was sick with COVID-19.
- Antigen tests return results quicker. At-home rapid tests are a type of antigen test, but there are also testing sites that do antigen testing. Doctors say antigen tests are still good at detecting the coronavirus, especially while someone is experiencing symptoms.
You may hear this one get tossed around a lot this winter, but flurona isn’t a new illness. It’s when someone is infected with the flu at the same time as the coronavirus. Several U.S. states have confirmed cases of co-infection. To tell if you have the flu, COVID-19 or both, you’ll need to be tested for both viruses.
Quarantine vs. isolate
The difference here is subtle. You quarantine if you think you’ve been exposed to COVID-19 and aren’t fully up to date on your vaccines. You isolate if you’re experiencing COVID-19 symptoms or if you’ve tested positive. The CDC guidelines for quarantining and for isolating vary slightly, but either way you’re stuck at home.
This phrase is nothing new; however, there’s been some pressure on the CDC to change its definition of “fully vaccinated” to include requiring a booster shot. For now, the CDC says the meaning remains the same: Someone is fully vaccinated two weeks after they’ve received two Pfizer or Moderna shots or one Johnson & Johnson dose.
A fully vaccinated person who contracts COVID-19 has what’s called a breakthrough infection. We’re seeing many such infections these days with the omicron variant, which is better than previous variants and evading pre-existing immunity. However, the vaccines are still proving effective at preventing most serious illness, hospitalization and death.
Super immunity is the idea that someone who is fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and get a breakthrough infection will be extremely well protected against the virus going forward. Early studies suggest there is enhanced immunity, but with a virus that’s constantly mutating in hard-to-predict ways, there’s much to be seen about how “super” the immunity is.
Researchers in Cyprus believe they’ve identified COVID-19 infections combining the omicron and delta variants. The findings are isolated, and more research is needed to understand the possible co-infection.
Epidemic vs. pandemic vs. endemic
A sudden, large outbreak of disease is an epidemic. When the coronavirus spread from Wuhan, China to people across many countries, it was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization.
Endemic refers to the expected baseline level of a disease. According to the CDC: “This level is not necessarily the desired level, which may in fact be zero, but rather is the observed level … the disease may continue to occur at this level indefinitely.”
At some point, the WHO will declare the global pandemic over. It seems highly unlikely that we’ll have eliminated COVID-19 at that point, but rather the disease will be endemic. That means it will still exist, but there will be enough vaccines and treatments to protect the vast majority of people, and the virus won’t regularly disrupt the economy or society. The flu, for example, is considered endemic.