Coronavirus Topical Guide

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

coronaviruses (revised)

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

Coronaviruses can cause the common cold or more severe diseases such as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome). A new coronavirus first appeared in late 2019 in Wuhan, China. It causes a respiratory illness now called COVID-19, which stands for coronavirus disease 2019.

The virus itself is named SARS-CoV-2 but avoid using that name.

Referring to simply the coronavirus is acceptable on first reference in stories about the current pandemic. While the phrasing incorrectly implies there is only one coronavirus, the meaning is clear in this context. A year into the outbreak, do not use the terms new coronavirus or novel coronavirus unless needed to distinguish between viruses.

Common symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, cough, breathing trouble, sore throat, muscle pain and loss of taste or smell. Most people develop only mild symptoms. But some people, usually those with other medical complications, develop more severe symptoms, including pneumonia.

Sometimes people with a coronavirus infection display no symptoms.

The term coronavirus is generally acceptable in references to the pandemic: coronavirus cases, coronavirus tests, coronavirus variants. Use the term COVID-19 when referring specifically to the disease: COVID-19 treatments, COVID-19 patients, COVID-19 deaths, recovering from COVID-19.

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

When referring specifically to the virus, the COVID-19 virus and the virus that causes COVID-19 are acceptable, as is simply the coronavirus.

But, because COVID-19 is the name of the disease, not the virus, it is not accurate to write a virus called COVID-19.

Also incorrect are usages such as COVID-19 spreads through the air; scientists are investigating how long COVID-19 may remain on surfaces; she worries about catching COVID-19. In each of those, it should be the coronavirus, not COVID-19.

The shortened form COVID is acceptable if necessary for space in headlines, and in direct quotations and proper names.

Omitting the is acceptable in headlines and in uses such as: He said coronavirus concerns are increasing.

antibodies (revised)

Substances that the body’s immune system makes to fight off infection. Antibodies are also made in response to a vaccine. Treatments for COVID-19 include medicines with concentrated doses of lab-made antibodies and blood plasma from survivors that contain antibodies.

A blood test for antibodies checks to see if someone has been infected previously. It’s not ideal for detecting active or current infections; other types of tests are preferred for that.


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.

antiviral (n., adj.), antivirus (adj.)

No hyphen in either term, an exception based on common usage to our general guidance to hyphenate anti- terms unless they have specific meanings of their own. Use antiviral in medical references: an antiviral drug, antivirals to fight COVID-19. Use antivirus in general references: antivirus measures, antivirus controls.


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

cancel, canceled, canceling, cancellation


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 as does the full name.

comorbidity, comorbidities (new)

Avoid use of this medical term, which means having two or more diseases or health conditions at the same time. The CDC says people with certain medical conditions like cancer and heart disease have an increased risk of serious illness from COVID-19.


Avoid this term. Usually better to use words like disease or illness, or more specific words like virus.

contact tracing (n., adj.)

The practice of tracking down and monitoring people who have been in close proximity with an infected person. Do not enclose in quotation marks. No hyphen in any use, including when used as a modifier: The state's contact tracing efforts. Consider rephrasing to avoid the term or for variety: The state's efforts to identify people who have had close contact with the nursing home worker.

coronavirus relief packages (new)

On March 6, 2021, the U.S. Senate approved a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill. Final passage in the House was expected the week of March 8.

The plan, backed by Democrats and President Joe Biden, provides direct payments of up to $1,400 for most Americans and extended emergency unemployment benefits. The measure includes funds for COVID-19 vaccines and testing; state, city and tribal governments; and schools and ailing industries. There also are tax breaks to help lower-earning people, families with children and consumers buying health insurance.

Taken together, provisions in the 628-page bill add up to one of the largest enhancements to the social safety net in decades. Besides stopping the pandemic and jumpstarting hiring, money in the rescue package is supposed to start fixing income inequality, halve child poverty, feed the hungry, save pensions, sustain public transit, let schools reopen with confidence, and help repair state and local government finances.

The package is called the American Rescue Plan. Limit use of the term.

The measure follows five earlier virus bills totaling about $4 trillion that Congress has enacted since last spring.The first, a $2.2 trillion package passed in March 2020, is sometimes referred to as the CARES Act, short for the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.

Do not refer to any of these as a stimulus, a stimulus package, etc. The measures have been intended to replace money lost in the collapse of the economy, rather than to stimulate demand. But the current bill has elements that will spend money years into the future. Descriptions of the package can include, for example: The bill contains elements intended to stimulate faster growth over the long term.

curbside pickup (n.) (new)

But pick up as a 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.

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 COVID-19.

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.


Use Dr. in first reference as a formal title before the name of an individual who holds one of these degrees: doctor of dental surgery, doctor of medicine, doctor of optometry, doctor of osteopathic medicine, doctor of podiatric medicine or doctor of veterinary medicine: Dr. Anthony Fauci.

The form Dr., or Drs. in a plural construction, applies to all first-reference uses before a name, including direct quotations. Do not continue the use of Dr. in subsequent references.

Do not use Dr. before the names of individuals who hold other types of doctoral degrees. Instead, describe the person’s expertise or credentials.


emergency use authorization (new)

During a public health crisis, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration can use its emergency powers to allow the use of experimental drugs, tests and other medical products. It can waive its usual standards for studies on safety and effectiveness and require only that an experimental treatment's potential benefits outweigh its risks. It is not the same as full FDA approval and expires after the public health emergency has ended. Avoid using the term emergency use authorization and the acronym EUA. Don’t say approved. Instead, say for example: The FDA allowed emergency use of Pfizer’s vaccine. See the vaccine section below for more. Regulatory agencies in other countries also have provisions for emergency use.

epidemic, pandemic (revised)

An epidemic is the rapid spreading of disease in a certain population or region; a pandemic is an epidemic that has spread wider, usually to multiple countries or continents, affecting a large number of people. Follow declarations of public health officials in terminology. On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. Do not write global pandemic; the adjective is unnecessary as this pandemic is widely known to be global.


Contact with or close proximity to a harmful substance, such as the coronavirus, that can lead to infection or illness. People are tested for infection with the virus, not exposure to it.

FaceTime (new)

A video chat app for iPhone or iPad. FaceTime is used informally as a verb, but talked via FaceTime or used FaceTime is preferred.

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


health care

Two words in all uses.

herd immunity (new)

Herd immunity occurs when enough people have immunity, either from vaccination or past infection, to stop uncontrolled spread of an infectious disease. It doesn’t mean that a virus or bacteria is eradicated or that no person can get infected. Outbreaks can still happen even when a population has achieved herd immunity. The threshold for herd immunity varies among different types of infectious diseases. Scientists aren’t sure what the threshold is for the coronavirus, though they believe it’s higher than 70%.

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

hot spot

hydroxychloroquine (revised)

A decades-old drug that is used to prevent and treat malaria and also to treat lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. It was used experimentally against COVID-19 but studies have shown it to be ineffective to treat or prevent coronavirus infection. The pill is sold as a generic and under the brand name Plaquenil. Chloroquine is an older, similar drug.

ICU (new)

Acceptable on second reference for an intensive care unit. If ICU is used on first reference, give the full term quickly thereafter.

incubation period (revised)

Time between infection and the appearance of signs or symptoms of an illness. The incubation period for the coronavirus is thought to last up to two weeks. On average, symptoms show up four to five days later.

infectious disease (n., adj.) (new)

No hyphen in the modifier: an infectious disease specialist.

isolation, self-isolation, quarantine (revised)

In common usage during the pandemic, the terms isolation and quarantine generally are being used interchangeably.

The CDC makes this distinction: 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 isolate at home. Quarantine separates and restricts the movement of people who were exposed to a contagious disease to see if they become sick. Webster’s New World College Dictionary includes a broader use among its definitions of quarantine: any isolation or restriction on travel or passage imposed to keep contagious diseases, etc. from spreading.

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

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

long-hauler (new)

Sometimes used to describe a person or group of people who do not fully recover from COVID-19 and have lingering symptoms, including fatigue, shortness of breath, “brain fog” and trouble sleeping. Use sparingly and describe the long-term health problem if relevant. The condition is sometimes referred to as long-haul COVID-19 or long COVID-19. Avoid the medical term: post-acute COVID syndrome, or PACS.

masks, respirators, ventilators (revised)

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.

Generic masks are simply face masks or masks. Mask may be used as a verb, and often is used with the word up: They are required to mask while in the building. We masked up and went for a walk. And: Mask-wearing and hand-washing are encouraged while social distancing.

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.

multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (CDC term); multisystem inflammatory disorder in children and adolescents (WHO term)

Avoid both terms. Instead, use wording such as a rare inflammatory condition (or syndrome) in children linked with the coronavirus.

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. Both NIH and the full name take a singular verb. There are 27 institutes or centers, including the National Cancer Institute, the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.



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.


Avoid this term. Use virus or bacteria, as appropriate, or the generic/informal terms germs or bugs.

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 (revised)

Equipment worn to minimize exposure to hazards that cause serious injuries and illnesses. The shorthand PPE is acceptable on second reference.

pod (new)

Learning pods are small groups of children who learn together outside of the classroom. They are led by parents or a tutor.

Social pods involve multiple households that socialize with one another as though they are family – indoors, without masks, not socially distancing. They agree to a common set of virus protocols for contact outside the pod.



remdesivir (revised)

An antiviral medicine. Developed by Gilead Sciences, it was the first drug approved by the FDA to treat COVID-19, in October 2020. Its brand name is Veklury but it is still widely known as remdesivir, its generic name. It is given by IV.


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 as likely — 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.

Skype (new)

A service, owned by Microsoft Corp., that allows users to communicate by voice, video and instant message over the internet. Skype is used informally as a verb for using the service, particularly when communicating on video.

social distancing, socially distancing (revised)

No quote marks, no hyphen: The CDC is urging social distancing. The parents are taking social distancing precautions. They’ve been socially distancing. 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.

Some people prefer the terms physical distancing or distant socializing, to emphasize maintaining social relationships while keeping a safe space.

The shortened versions distancing or distanced are acceptable on second reference if clear in the context.

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

study phases (new)

Drug studies usually are conducted in three phases in humans. In phase 1, small numbers of people are given an experimental treatment to see if it’s safe. In phase 2, more people are treated to further test safety and determine appropriate dosages. Phase 3 studies are large tests of safety and effectiveness. It’s often best to wait to report those results. For general audiences, avoid the term phase: call it early-stage, mid-stage or late-stage testing and explain what is involved. If used in quotes, lowercase and use numeral: phase 3, not Phase III.

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

superspreader (n., adj.) (new)

An individual who spreads a virus or disease to an unusually large number of people, or a setting or event where an infection is spread to a large number of people: a superspreader event.

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 might increase a person’s risk of severe 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.

virus variant (new)

Viruses often develop small changes, or mutations, as they reproduce. Some are harmless but others are more worrisome, especially if they make the virus more contagious or make people sicker. They also might curb the effectiveness of some treatments or vaccines. Use variant or version to describe a new form of a virus. If a variant is different enough in certain ways than previous ones, it might be designated as a new strain or lineage, but these are not interchangeable terms. Avoid using the numbers given to variants, such as B.1.1.7 for the one first found in Britain.

Avoid using country labels like the South Africa variant. Instead: the variant first detected in South Africa.

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.

Zoom (new)

Video conferencing platform owned by Zoom Video Communications Inc. of San Jose, California. Usage includes: a Zoom meeting, a class conducted on (or via, or by) Zoom, we used Zoom. Sometimes used informally as a verb, but that usage is not preferred.


vaccine (n.), vaccination (n) (new)

A vaccine is a product that stimulates the body’s immune system to make antibodies and provide immunity against a specific virus or other germ. Vaccination is the act of giving a vaccine.

The terms are often interchangeable, since a person is receiving the vaccine while getting a vaccination. Use the term vaccination if needed to be specific about the act of giving or receiving the shot: the city’s vaccination schedule, for example. The terms immunization and vaccination can generally be used interchangeably.

Don’t refer to a vaccine as a drug, medicine or serum.

Coronavirus vaccines are made in a wide variety of ways. It’s not necessary to include the type of vaccine, unless relevant, in most stories. Use the manufacturer’s name if needed to distinguish between vaccines. (See below.)

Do not say anti-COVID-19 vaccine or anti-coronavirus vaccine. Instead: COVID-19 vaccine (or vaccination) or coronavirus vaccine (or vaccination). The terms COVID-19 and coronavirus are both acceptable as a modifier for the vaccine or vaccination.

vaccine names (new)

Use the manufacturer’s name to refer to a specific vaccine. For example, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Moderna, Novavax, Sanofi, Sinopharm, Sinovac, CanSino and Johnson & Johnson (J&J on second reference.)

Exceptions: Sputnik V, from Russia’s state-run Gamaleya Center and Covaxin (not COVAXIN) from Bharat Biotech in India.

Development of some vaccines involved a partner. Include a mention of the partner when relevant: Germany’s BioNTech for Pfizer; Oxford University for AstraZeneca; and U.S. National Institutes of Health for Moderna.

Do not use Pfizer-BioNTech or AstraZeneca-Oxford construction. Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine was developed by its Janssen Pharmaceuticals unit, but refer to the vaccine solely as Johnson & Johnson or J&J.

AstraZeneca has partnered with the Serum Institute of India to make its vaccine. Use AstraZeneca for those doses; not the local name, Covishield.

Pfizer’s vaccine has a brand name, Comirnaty, but it is not in wide use.

vaccine approval (new)

Be careful in describing a vaccine’s approval status, which can vary country to country. Many regulatory agencies are allowing vaccines to be used on a temporary, emergency basis. Describe them as authorized for emergency use; allowed for emergency use; given the green light, etc. Avoid saying a vaccine was approved, until full, final approval has been granted by a regulatory agency. Until then, the vaccines are still considered experimental. Current vaccines are not OK’d for use in children.

vaccine side effects (new)

Use caution in reporting on any side effects. Most drugs and vaccines have side effects. Typical side effects for vaccines include things like a sore arm from the shot, fever and muscle aches. Allergic reactions and more serious side effects are rare. Just because someone has a health problem shortly after getting a vaccine doesn’t mean the vaccine is the cause; it may be coincidental. And some reactions may be to other chemicals in the vaccine solution, not the vaccine itself.

anti-vaxxer (new)

Do not use this term for someone who opposes vaccinations. If necessary in a direct quotation, explain it.

COVAX (new)

Acceptable on all references for an international cooperative program formed to make sure low- and middle-income countries have fair access to COVID-19 vaccines.

COVAX is led by the United Nations’ World Health Organization; Gavi, a vaccine group; and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations.

The group negotiates contracts with vaccine companies. Some member countries buy them, others get them for free thanks to donor countries and charities.

COVAX stands for COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility. Unless necessary, do not use the full name, which suggests a building. Do not use COVAX facility.

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