Coronavirus Topical Guide

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To help with coverage of the new coronavirus disease, called COVID-19, The Associated Press has prepared a guide based on the AP Stylebook and common usage in AP stories.

For more details, follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at and


A family of viruses, some of which cause disease in people and animals, named for crownlike spikes on their surfaces.

The viruses can cause the common cold or more severe diseases such as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) and COVID-19, the latter of which first appeared in late 2019 in Wuhan, China.

As of March 2020, referring to simply the coronavirus is acceptable on first reference in stories about COVID-19. While the phrasing incorrectly implies there is only one coronavirus, it is clear in this context. Also acceptable on first reference: the new coronavirus; the new virus; COVID-19.

In stories, do not refer simply to coronavirus without the article the. Not: She is concerned about coronavirus. Omitting the is acceptable in headlines and in uses such as: He said coronavirus concerns are increasing.

Passages and stories focusing on the science of the disease require sharper distinctions.

COVID-19, which stands for coronavirus disease 2019, is caused by a virus named SARS-CoV-2. When referring specifically to the virus, the COVID-19 virus and the virus that causes COVID-19 are acceptable. But, because COVID-19 is the name of the disease, not the virus, it is not accurate to write a new virus called COVID-19.

SARS is acceptable on first reference for the disease first identified in Asia in 2003. Spell out severe acute respiratory syndrome later in the story.

MERS is acceptable on first reference. Spell out Middle East respiratory syndrome later in the story.

Symptoms of COVID-19 can include fever, cough and breathing trouble. Most develop only mild symptoms. But some people, usually those with other medical complications, develop more severe symptoms, including pneumonia, which can be fatal.

Do not exaggerate the risks presented by any of the three diseases by routinely referring to them as deadly, fatal or the like.


Hyphenate most, but don’t hyphenate words that have specific means of their own. For example: antibiotic, antibody, antidote, antiseptic.

antiseptic, disinfectant

Antiseptics, such as hand sanitizers, are used to kill germs on living things. Disinfectants, such as bleach, are used on inanimate things, such as countertops and handrails. The adjective is disinfectant, not disinfecting.


Avoid this medical jargon; use no symptoms, without symptoms or the like.

cancel, canceled, canceling, cancellation


Avoid using this term unless in a direct quotation in reference to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. Instead, use phrasing such as the coronavirus relief bill, the coronavirus aid bill, the coronavirus rescue package, etc., for the U.S. government’s $2.2 trillion package to help businesses, workers and a health care system staggered by the coronavirus.


People should not be referred to as cases. Correct: Fifty people tested positive for the virus. Fifty cases of the virus were reported. Incorrect: Fifty cases tested positive for the virus. Incorrect and redundant: 50 positive cases.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Located in Atlanta, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. On first reference, use Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Precede with national, federal or U.S. if needed for clarity. On second reference, the CDC is acceptable and takes a singular verb.



The word typically takes singular verbs and pronouns when writing for general audiences and in data journalism contexts: The data is sound. In scientific and academic writing, plural verbs and pronouns are preferred.

Use databank and database, but data processing (n. and adj.) and data center.

death, die

Don't use euphemisms like passed on or passed away except in a direct quote.


Do not capitalize diseases such as cancer, emphysema, leukemia, hepatitis, etc., but do capitalize the shorthand COVID-19, MERS, SARS. When a disease is known by the name of a person or geographical area identified with it, capitalize only the proper noun element: Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Ebola virus, etc.

Avoid such expressions as: He is battling COVID-19. She is a stroke victim. Use neutral, precise descriptions: He has stomach cancer. She had a stroke.

distances, time periods

Use numerals for distances: Social distancing includes staying 6 feet away from other people.

Spell out numbers under 10 when referring to days, weeks, months, years: six months.

distance learning (n., adj.)

Schools are turning to distance learning. He is taking a distance learning class.


epidemic, pandemic

An epidemic is the rapid spreading of disease in a certain population or region; a pandemic is an epidemic that has spread worldwide. Use sparingly; follow declarations of public health officials. On March 11, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. Do not write global pandemic, which is redundant.

front line (n.) front-line (adj.)

good Samaritan


health care

home schooling (n.) home-schooler (n.) home-school (v.) home-schooled (adj.)

hot spot

incubation period

Time between infection and the appearance of signs or symptoms of an illness. The incubation period for the new virus is thought to be up to two weeks.

isolation, quarantine

According to the CDC: Isolation is separating sick people from healthy people to prevent spread of disease. For example, people believed to have COVID-19 or to have been exposed to the coronavirus are put in isolation in hospitals or are asked to practice self-isolation. Quarantine separates and restricts the movement of people who were exposed to a contagious disease to see if they become sick.

lock down (v.), lockdown (n., adj.)

Spell out what is meant, because people’s definitions and interpretations vary.

masks, respirators, ventilators

An N95 mask is a specific type of tight-fitting, cup-shaped face mask that covers the nose and mouth, filters the air, and is used by workers in such settings as construction and health care. They are technically respirators, but the preferred term is masks to avoid confusion with ventilators. Respirators like the N95 are distinct from surgical masks, which also cover the nose and mouth but fit loosely. A ventilator is a machine that helps people breathe; breathing machine is acceptable.

medical job titles

Avoid cumbersome or unfamiliar medical or scientific titles when possible. Describe someone’s expertise instead. Public health researcher or researcher instead of epidemiologist. Virus expert instead of virologist. Lung specialist instead of pulmonologist. Use the proper job title if it is a government position: state Epidemiologist Mira Sanchez.

National Institutes of Health

This agency within the Department of Health and Human Services is the principal biomedical research arm of the federal government. NIH is acceptable on second reference. There are 27 institutes or centers, including the National Cancer Institute, the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute of Mental Health.



A sudden rise in cases of a disease in a particular place. For disease references, reserve for larger numbers of an illness, not a few cases.


Implies someone is being or has been treated by a medical professional. The vast majority of people with the virus are not hospitalized, and some may not seek out care, so avoid using patients to refer to all people with the virus.

patient zero

Unscientific term that refers to the first person to get a disease or spread it to a new area. It is potentially misleading or defamatory and best confined to quoted material. If used in a quotation, use lowercase and quotation marks around the term itself: “It’s clear that ‘patient zero’ is a myth,” the doctor said.

percent, percentage, percentage points

Use the % sign when paired with a numeral, with no space, in most cases: The S&P 500 future contract was down 3.2% and the future for the Dow dropped 3.3%.

In casual uses, use words rather than figures and numbers: She said he has a zero percent chance of winning.

At the start of a sentence: Try to avoid this construction. If it’s necessary to start a sentence with a percentage, spell out both: Eighty-nine percent of sentences don’t have to begin with a number.

Constructions with the % sign take a singular verb when standing alone or when a singular word follows an of construction: The teacher said 60% was a failing grade. He said 50% of the membership was there.

It takes a plural verb when a plural word follows an of construction: He said 50% of the members were there.

Use decimals, not fractions, in percentages: Her mortgage rate is 4.5%.

For a range, 12% to 15%, 12%-15% and between 12% and 15% are all acceptable.

Use percentage, rather than percent, when not paired with a number: The percentage of people agreeing is small.

Be careful not to confuse percent with percentage point. A change from 10% to 13% is a rise of 3 percentage points. This is not equal to a 3% change; rather, it’s a 30% increase.

Usage: Republicans passed a 0.25 percentage point tax cut. Not: Republicans passed a 0.25 percentage points tax cut or Republicans passed a tax cut of 0.25 of a percentage point.

personal protective equipment

Equipment worn to minimize exposure to hazards that cause serious injuries and illnesses. Don’t use PPE. If necessary to use PPE in a direct quotation, spell it out later and explain the term.



Restricting movement of healthy people who may have been exposed to an infection to see if they become ill. For example, the passengers on the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan were quarantined.


Relative risk is the risk of something happening to one group compared with the risk of it happening to another. This is often expressed in a fraction or ratio in scientific studies. If there is no difference, the ratio is 1. For example, if a study finds that the relative risk of a group of smokers getting a disease is 1.5 compared with a group of nonsmokers, it means the smokers are 1.5 times — or 50% — more likely to develop the disease. But it doesn’t say how likely it is that either group gets the disease. For that, you need absolute risk.

Absolute risk is the risk of something happening at all. For example, the nonsmoking group in the above example may have had a 4 in 100 chance of getting the disease, while the smokers had a 6 in 100 chance of getting a disease. Another example: A drug that extends life by 50% (a relative risk) sounds impressive, but that might mean living six months on average on a treatment versus four months without. Readers deserve both views of the results.

shelter in place (v.), shelter-in-place (adj.)

The governor urged residents to shelter in place. Authorities issued a shelter-in-place order. Spell out what is meant, because people’s definitions and interpretations vary.

stay at home (v.), stay-at-home (adj.)

shutdown (n.), shut down (v.)

social distancing, socially distancing

No quote marks, no hyphen: The CDC is urging social distancing. The parents are taking social distancing precautions. They’ve been socially distancing themselves. Generally, social distancing involves measures to restrict when and where people can gather. The goal is to stop or slow the spread of infectious diseases. Measures can include limiting the number of people who can gather, staying 6 feet away from others, closing schools, asking people to work at home, canceling events, limiting or shutting down public transportation, etc.

No need to define if the meaning is clear from the context; the term has quickly become widely used and understood. If specific steps are a focus, spell out what those steps are.

telecommute, telecommuting, telecommuter

teleconference, teleconferencing


travel, traveled, traveling, traveler

underlying conditions, preexisting conditions

Terms like existing health conditions or other health problems are preferred over underlying conditions to describe issues that contributed to a COVID-19 illness or death. No hyphen in preexisting condition, a term usually used in the context of health insurance.

videoconference, videoconferencing; video chat


The singular possessive form of virus. Not virus’. See possessives.

World Health Organization

The specialized health agency of the United Nations and is based in Geneva. It sets internationally accepted guidelines for treating diseases and coordinates responses to disease outbreaks globally. On second reference, the WHO and WHO are both acceptable.

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