The coronavirus has officially been declared a “pandemic” by the World Health Organization (WHO). What that means is that it is spreading widely in the world, and countries should increase their efforts to address the situation.

Outbreak, epidemic, or pandemic: what is the difference?

When talking about a disease, these terms can be confusing.

  • An “outbreak” is an increase in the number of people who have a certain disease in a community, or geographic area. For instance, seasonal flu each year.
  • An “epidemic” is when that outbreak spreads rapidly to others.
  • A “pandemic” is when the infectious agent has spread globally. It often occurs with a new strain of a virus, like this novel coronavirus.

Why is coronavirus dangerous?

The last time the WHO declared a pandemic was in 2009 for the H1N1 outbreak. H1N1 was a novel flu that quickly spread. When a strain is new, that often means individuals have little or no immunity to that particular strain. For new viruses, a vaccine must be developed, and typically that takes many months. With that particular outbreak of H1N1, the incidence was reduced in some individuals because they had some protection from previous infection with a similar strain of influenza.

Unfortunately, that is not the case with the novel coronavirus now known as SARS CoV-2 causing the disease called COVID-19. As a result, it is estimated that up to 60% of the population may contract the disease.  However, approximately 80% will have no symptoms or mild symptoms.

Contain and mitigate: stop the spread and lessen its impact

When facing a pandemic like the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to do what you can to contain the spread of the virus, thereby “mitigating” or lessening its impact.

To do so, there are things we can do from a public health standpoint. Social distancing, such as preventing social gatherings in bars, night clubs, sports events, etc., is one way. Likewise, restricting visitors in hospitals and preventing or otherwise severely constraining visitation to our most vulnerable, namely those in nursing homes, while a difficult decision, is also an important step.

Taking steps like these to mitigate the pandemic will also help with what is known as “flattening the curve.” That means we are trying to reduce a major surge of disease that would overwhelm our healthcare system. By reducing how quickly a disease is spread, it becomes more manageable. If everyone gets sick all at once, it creates a surge of patients that can overwhelm hospitals and doctors’ offices. While the same number of people may be affected by a disease, if that is spread over a longer period of time, it is more manageable for the healthcare community.

When will the coronavirus outbreak end?

The current outbreak of coronavirus will end with a vaccine or something known as "herd immunity." Herd immunity, or community immunity, is when a high percentage of the community becomes immune to the disease, either through vaccination or prior illness. At that point, it is less likely to spread from person to person.

What should you do about coronavirus?

  • Wash your hands often or use hand sanitizer.
  • Avoid crowds.
  • Avoid hugging or shaking hands when greeting others.
  • Don’t touch any high touch surfaces such as doorknobs, bathroom faucet handles, etc.
  • Frequently clean high touch surfaces in your home.
  • Get enough sleep and have a healthy diet.
  • Follow healthcare facility visitor guidelines and restrictions.
  • If you are visiting the hospital campus for appointments or testing, please read these recommendations.

We will continue to update our website with the latest information on the coronavirus pandemic. You can also visit the Centers for Disease Control’s website.

Leonard Mermel, DO

Leonard A. Mermel, DO

Dr. Leonard Mermel is an infectious diseases specialist and medical director of the department of epidemiology and infection control at Lifespan.