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.
Updated on May 21, 2020.
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.
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 or the new virus for the virus; COVID-19 for the disease caused by the virus.
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. 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.
Do not shorten to COVID, even in headlines, unless part of a quotation or proper name.
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.
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.
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 for the disease first identified in 2012. Spell out Middle East respiratory syndrome later in the story.
Substances that the body’s immune system makes to fight off infection. 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.
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.) (new)
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
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. Do not refer to it as a stimulus, a stimulus package, etc. The measure was passed to replace money lost in the collapse of the economy, rather than to stimulate demand.
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.
Avoid this term. Usually better to use words like disease or illness, or more specific words like virus.
contact tracing (new)
The practice of tracking down and monitoring people who have been in close proximity to someone who is infected. Do not enclose in quotation marks. Include a hyphen for clarity 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.
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.
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.
Use Dr. in first reference as a formal title before the name of an individual who holds a 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: Rick Bright, a vaccine expert who led a biodefense agency in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. If more details are necessary: Bright has a doctorate degree in immunology and molecular pathogenesis.
An epidemic is the rapid spreading of disease in a certain population or region; a pandemic is an epidemic that has spread worldwide. 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.
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.
front line(s) (n.) front-line (adj.)
Two words in all uses.
home schooling (n.) home-schooler (n.) home-school (v.) home-schooled (adj.)
A decades-old drug that is used to prevent and treat malaria and is also a treatment for lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. It was used experimentally to treat COVID-19, but the Food and Drug Administration revoked emergency authorization on June 15 amid growing evidence it doesn’t work and could cause serious side effects. The drugs are still available for alternate uses, so U.S. doctors could still prescribe them for COVID-19 — a practice known as off-label prescribing.
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 about two weeks.
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 practice self-isolation. 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 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.
multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (CDC term); multisystem inflammatory disorder in children and adolescents (WHO term) (new)
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. There are 27 institutes or centers, including the National Cancer Institute, the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute of Mental Health.
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
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.
An experimental antiviral medicine developed by Gilead Sciences. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is allowing emergency use of remdesivir for seriously ill hospitalized COVID-19 patients. It is given by IV. Do not capitalize; remdesivir is not a brand name.
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.
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
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.