How we discuss healthcare has changed drastically since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Previously, healthcare was only discussed when you or a loved one had an important diagnosis or small procedure, a celebrity came down with a mysterious ailment, or you received a phone call from your child’s school nurse. Now, however, healthcare and the words we use to discuss our health have a totally different meaning and extend far past “How are you feeling today?”
There are certain words that gained a lot more popularity in the past year and will continue to be used in our conversations about healthcare moving forward.
“Breakthrough” was used when discussing COVID-19 treatment options or the speed at which vaccines became available. It also could mean patients who were infected with COVID-19 despite being vaccinated.
According to the CDC, no vaccine is 100% 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 3459 patients with a breakthrough infection who were hospitalized or died among more than 139 million fully vaccinated adults.
The official definition of COVID-19 stands for coronavirus disease 2019. The word was penned by the World Health Organization on Feb. 11, 2020 and is now permanently ingrained into society. It 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.
Existing disparities in healthcare, such as rural vs urban access to care and treatment of minority patients, were further exacerbated due to the pandemic. 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.
The pandemic highlighted the difference between workers who are needed to slow the spread of COVID-19 and keep the country’s critical functions operating vs the workers who could conduct their business from home or temporarily shut down their establishments. 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.
First defined in 1917, right around the flu pandemic of 1918, herd immunity for COVID-19 is often debated at what threshold it will occur, with the general consensus somewhere between 60% and 85% of a population fully vaccinated. However, as vaccination rates slowed, a new question emerged: Is herd immunity even attainable?
Experts cite 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
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.
Some news and social media sources were called out for “misinformation” regarding COVID-19 information. This word took on a new importance in 2020, as false claims about the vaccine, the pandemic’s origins and purported treatments for the virus spread like wildfire. 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.
Personal protective equipment (PPE), specifically masks, became hugely important for the population in slowing the spread of COVID-19 and protecting oneself from the virus. 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.
On March 11, 2020, the WHO officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic, meaning the virus was affecting large numbers of people across multiple countries. 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.
Similarly to masks, PPE took center stage in the early days of the pandemic when shortages became prevalent for healthcare workers across the country, and American’s realized the cracks in the nation’s supply chain of PPE. Healthcare workers had 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.
When COVID-19 spread to groups of people widely, it was known as a “superspreader.” 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.
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. Experts are still unsure about 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.
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. We often have used “surge” in the past to describe an influx of viruses such as the flu in the winter months. For COVID-19, the third “surge”, or the number of cases that spiked following the 2020 holiday season, 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.
In the early days of the pandemic, everyone was referring to the events as never-before-seen, uncertain, and unprecedented. It’s true; in most Americans’ lifetimes, no one had ever experienced anything quite like a global shutdown caused by a virus. In communication with colleagues, distant relatives, and messages from small businesses, the phrase unprecedented times was used in almost every opening line of the correspondence. Usage of the word soared (according to Google trends, the keyword was used 20 times in February 2020 and 96 in March), and it was even in the running for the official Oxford Word of the Year.
“Variants” has been used to describe the different strains of COVID-19, some that may have originated in other parts of the world. These strains of COVID-19 often spread more rapidly, such as the Alpha variant from the U.K., and much of the discussion about variants circles around vaccine preventiveness. These variants still threaten pandemic progress, and without mass vaccination, or herd immunity, the virus can mutate further and potentially evade vaccines, and therefore, evade elimination.
Going “virtual” was people’s response to maintaining social life when the nation was shut down. Thanks to modern day technology, events spanning from weddings to work happy hours were able to take place through video chat platforms. Healthcare was able to go virtual as well as they 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.
Bean M, Carbajal E, Masson G. 15 words that changed, defined healthcare this past year. Becker’s Hospital Review. Published June 15, 2021. Accessed June 22, 2021.