15 words that changed, defined healthcare this past year

The COVID-19 pandemic changed life as we know it forever — and how we talk about it. 

Below are 15 words that have gained a new meaning during the pandemic, solidified their place in public dialogue or didn't even exist a year and a half ago. 

Breakthrough. After the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, use of the word "breakthrough" gained traction to describe infections that developed among people who were vaccinated against the virus. According to the CDC, no vaccine is 100 percent effective, and the concept of infection after vaccination is not new. Prior to COVID-19, however, the word was not widely used to refer to such cases with other diseases. The CDC limits tracking of breakthrough COVID-19 cases to severe infections that require hospitalization or lead to death. As of June 7, the agency reported 3,459 patients with a breakthrough infection who were hospitalized or died among more than 139 million fully vaccinated adults. 

COVID-19. Of all the new words Merriam-Webster added to the dictionary in the past year, "COVID-19" is arguably the most notable. The term, which stands for coronavirus disease 2019, was penned by the World Health Organization on Feb. 11, 2020. The word is now permanently ingrained into society and has come to mean so much more than just "the disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus." Healthcare — and all of modern-day life — is now separated by the distinction "before COVID-19" and after.  

Disparities. Disparities aren't new to healthcare, but the pandemic exacerbated existing disparities while also fueling new ones. The direct effect inequities can have on health outcomes has been blatantly exposed, underscoring how important it is for leaders to understand, address and work to rectify these disparities.

Essential. As cities and states entered lockdown in spring 2020, the term "essential worker" gained traction to describe people who work in industries — such as healthcare, food services and transportation — that support the country's critical functions. The pandemic underscored society's huge reliance on essential workers, who were applauded as heroes as the rest of the country performed their jobs from the safety of their own homes. The word "essential" also gained prominence as hospitals grappled with COVID-19-related capacity restraints and had to cancel elective surgeries to free up space or reserve limited personal protective equipment supplies. This ignited discussions about what qualified as essential or nonessential surgeries, with some hospitals opting to ignore the American College of Surgeons' recommendation to cancel all elective procedures.

Herd immunity. When the FDA authorized emergency use for the first COVID-19 vaccine, all anyone could talk about was achieving herd immunity. If the term wasn't widely known before, the initial frenzy to reach herd immunity certainly put it on the map. First defined in 1917, right around the flu pandemic of 1918, herd immunity is the reduced risk of infection from a communicable disease that occurs when a significant proportion of the population becomes immune. Experts have debated at what threshold herd immunity for COVID-19 will occur, with the general consensus somewhere between 60 and 85 percent of a population fully vaccinated. However, as vaccination rates slowed, a new question emerged: Is herd immunity even attainable? So many unknowns make it difficult to say, with experts citing the unknown role variants will play and a lack of knowledge about how long antibodies last. As the pool of potential vaccine candidates dries up, experts say the coming winter may be another difficult one if the U.S. doesn't reach herd immunity. One thing is certain — herd immunity's role in this pandemic is still playing out.  

Hospital at home. If "hospital at home" is a term you've been hearing more often, you're not alone. The term was coined in 1995, but has gained popularity in the last year as hospitals looked to innovative care delivery models to preserve bed capacity and limit COVID-19 exposure risks during the pandemic. The model entails providing hospital-level care to patients in the comfort of their own homes with the goal of fully substituting acute hospital care. The pandemic has accelerated adoption of the model, with major systems such as Rochester, Minn.-based Mayo Clinic and Salt Lake City-based Intermountain Healthcare rolling out their own versions last year. 

Misinformation. This word took on a new importance in 2020, as false claims about the COVID-19 vaccine, the pandemic's origins and purported treatments for COVID-19 spread like wildfire on social media and in public discourse. Infectious disease experts, public health officials and scientists were forced to work overtime trying to debunk these myths, and social media giants grappled with the heightened responsibility of monitoring their platforms for misinformation that could result in real-world harm. 

Masks. Face masks have played a significant role in slowing the spread of COVID-19 and protecting front-line healthcare workers. Though the CDC still recommends consistent mask-wearing for all unvaccinated individuals, mask-wearing among the general public is declining as states drop mandates and more Americans get vaccinated. However, it appears that masks will remain commonplace for quite a while in hospitals and medical offices. Some experts have suggested continuous mask use by the public during flu seasons, citing the significantly lower death and case rates seen this flu season. Time will prove how common masks stay for most Americans.

Pandemic. On March 11, 2020, the WHO officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic, meaning the virus was affecting large numbers of people across multiple countries. The term began to carry a new level of gravity, and if one didn't understand the severity or implications a pandemic could have, they certainly do now. COVID-19 laid bare that at the federal level, many countries were ill-equipped to handle a severe disease outbreak, sparking widespread use of phrases like "pandemic preparedness." In the future, "the pandemic" will be used in referring to an unprecedented phase of life for many in the healthcare sector and beyond.

PPE. Throughout the pandemic, the world became accustomed to seeing images of front-line healthcare workers decked head to toe in personal protective equipment, or PPE. The pandemic spotlighted cracks in the nation's PPE supply chain, and as shortages became prevalent, it became routine for healthcare workers to reuse certain items, such as masks, to try and protect themselves. In turn, people inside and outside the healthcare industry developed a newfound sense of appreciation for both the people behind the gear and the PPE itself.

Superspreader. This term dominated news headlines across the last year to describe events where COVID-19 spread to a large number of people. Weddings, church services, sporting events and other gatherings –– often instances where pandemic safety measures like masking and social distancing were abandoned –– routinely made headlines when clusters of COVID-19 cases were later tied to the events. A 10-day, 460,000-person motorcycle rally in Sturgis, S.D., took place in August 2020 and garnered national attention as a superspreader event, with a CDC report finding cases linked to the event spilled over to neighboring Minnesota. The agency's report found 34 percent of Minnesota's 87 counties had at least one COVID-19 case epidemiologically linked to the rally.  

Social distancing. Americans have always liked their personal space, with the pandemic bringing new meaning to this preference. To slow the spread of COVID-19, the CDC recommends limiting close contact with others, and to practice social or physical distancing by staying at least 6 feet from other people. Over the last year, across private and public sectors, social distancing was implemented. It's still unknown exactly how effective social distancing is in slowing the spread of COVID-19, but the measure will certainly have a long-term effect on the way Americans conceptualize space and position themselves around others.  

Surge. Spring surge, summer surge and winter surge: While COVID-19 cases have ebbed and flowed throughout the pandemic, this term became widely adopted to refer to large spikes in cases, hospitalizations, and in some cases, deaths. The word is often coupled with the season in which an influx of cases occurred in the U.S. –– spring and summer of 2020, and the 2020-21 winter season. The winter surge was the darkest of the pandemic, with an unprecedented influx of infections. Hospitals and health systems across the country canceled or delayed elective procedures and opened field hospitals, among other measures to adapt to the unprecedented demand COVID-19 surges brought. 

Variants. Around the same time vaccines were becoming a reality, the term "variant" was entering public dialogue. As contact tracers and researchers discovered different mutations of the virus, they identified some that spread more rapidly than others, such as the alpha variant first identified in the U.K. These coronavirus variants still threaten pandemic progress, and the virus's evolution continues to underscore the importance of vaccination. Without mass vaccination, or herd immunity, the virus can mutate further and potentially evade vaccines, and therefore, evade elimination. 

Virtual. The word "virtual" seeped into almost every aspect of daily life after COVID-19 highlighted the need for social distancing. Everything from work happy hours and baby showers to religious services and court hearings went virtual. Healthcare was no different. Hospitals and health systems had to rapidly build out their virtual care offerings, including telemedicine and remote patient monitoring, as COVID-19 patients flooded their facilities. Clinicians and the public became more comfortable with virtual visits. Long after the pandemic ends, this virtual footprint will remain stamped on society as we try to find a delicate balance between virtual and in-person interactions. 


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