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FAQ City: Is It Coronavirus Or COVID-19? Answering Your Questions About The Pandemic

Coronavirus graphic

The tumult caused by the coronavirus this week has many WFAE listeners writing into our newsroom with questions about the unfolding pandemic. For instance, "Why do news anchors alternate between saying coronavirus and COVID-19?" "Is there a difference between quarentine and isolation?" "What should I do if I think I have the coronavirus?"

Even listeners who follow the news closely may have had trouble keeping up with all the new terms that are leaping into our lexicon, and that's OK. Our reporters are here to help.

WFAE's health reporter, Claire Donnelly, joined WFAE's Nick de la Canal to assess some of the listener questions we've received this past week about the coronavirus.

Listen to the discussion in the audio above, or read on for answers.

  • Why is everyone saying "the coronavirus?" Isn't the correct name COVID-19?

The term "coronavirus" actually refers to a whole family of viruses. They're called that because the viruses have crown-like spikes on their surface (see the picture above).
The scientific name for this particular coronavirus is "severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2," or SARS-CoV-2. If you become infected with it, you will develop the coronavirus disease, which is called COVID-19.

So the distinction is the coronavirus is a virus, and COVID-19 is the disease caused by the virus. Both are correct; they just mean different things.

  • What's the difference between quarantine, isolation and social distancing?

This is a great question, because each means something different.
Quarantine is what happens to a healthy person after they've been exposed to a sick person. Isolation is what happens to a sick person displaying symptoms. Quarantine = healthy. Isolation = sick.

Social distancing is what everyone else is doing to try to prevent the spread or the virus — usually by remaining at least six feet apart from others, staying home and avoiding the public.

  • Why are we using terms like quarantine and isolation? Can't we use something less scary, like sequester?

Sequester does have the same meaning in everyday use, but quarantine and isolate are words with specific definitions in the public health world, so those are more precise.

  • What does "shelter-in-place" mean? Would I still be able to drive my car? Go outdoors? Could I still walk my dog?

A shelter-in-place order is a way for officials to further enforce social distancing, which again, is aimed at preventing the coronavirus from spreading by limiting peoples' contact with others.
California recently issued a shelter-in-place order, and it's not as dramatic as it sounds. People can still go out for essential errands like medical appointments or grocery shopping, but are otherwise advised to stay home.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom said people can still take their kids outside or walk the dog, but reminded everyone to still use common sense.

  • What do I do if I think I have the coronavirus? Should I call 911?

What public health officials have been saying is you should call your doctor's office or try to set up a virtual check up using telehealth. That way a professional can determine whether you need to be tested for COVID-19 and whether you could be a danger to others.
Mecklenburg County has a hotline you can call: 980-314-9400.

As a reminder, the most common symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, cough and shortness of breath.

However, there are exceptions when you should call 911, says Jon Studnek, an epidemiologist and deputy director of Mecklenburg County's EMS agency.

"If you're having severe difficulty breathing, please call 911, and we'll respond," he says. "But if you're just concerned that you might have it, we ask that you seek out those other methods."

  • How long will the virus survive on surfaces? Will heat or cold kill the virus?

Studnek says some studies have found the virus can exist on surfaces for between 24 and 72 hours, although that's just an estimate. Soap and water will kill the virus, along with hand santizer or products with 60% alcohol or greater.
"If you think about coronavirus like an M&M, and it's got the candy coat," he says. "Soap or alcohol dissolves that candy coating and then the virus contents just kind of spill out, and it doesn't exist anymore."

You can also use a mix of bleach and water in a 10-to-1 ratio to wipe down surfaces. As to whether heat or cold will kill the virus, Studnek says there's no real evidence on that yet.

One other thing -- because mail delivery is one of the few normal daily routines that hasn't been disrupted by the outbreak, some listeners may wonder if it's even safe to open mail. The U.S. Postal Service has said there's currently no evidence that the coronavirus is being spread through the mail, citing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.

  • Once you get the coronavirus, can you catch it again, or are you immune?

This is something scientists are still trying to figure out. Studnek says we'll learn more as more information becomes available from China, where the outbreak started.
He says at this point, it looks like the chance of people becoming reinfected after making a recovery seems low, but that information could change as we learn more.

Do you have more questions about the coronavirus, or anything else related to the Charlotte area? Share it with us in the box below. The WFAE newsroom is continuing to report on how the virus is impacting the Charlotte region, and your questions and story ideas keep us going.

Keep up with future FAQ City episodes by subscribing to the podcast on Apple PodcastsNPR One, or Google Play.


Nick de la Canal is an on air host and reporter covering breaking news, arts and culture, and general assignment stories. His work frequently appears on air and online. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal
Claire Donnelly is WFAE's health reporter. She previously worked at NPR member station KGOU in Oklahoma and also interned at WBEZ in Chicago and WAMU in Washington, D.C. She holds a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and attended college at the University of Virginia, where she majored in Comparative Literature and Spanish. Claire is originally from Richmond, Virginia. Reach her at cdonnelly@wfae.org or on Twitter @donnellyclairee.