Coronavirus explained

What even is a virus? What’s with flattening the curve? How does it spread? Answers to some of your COVID-19 questions

Editor's note: This article is out of date. A more recent version of Coronavirus explained from September 2020 can be found here.

Life in the time of coronavirus is changing rapidly. The good news is that things changing quickly might prevent things from getting too bad. Acting fast is one of the main defences against the virus' spread. To catch you up, The Coast spoke with Denys A. Khaperskyy, assistant professor at Dalhousie University in the department of microbiology and immunology, with expertise in virology and influenza viruses, about key terms and concepts. 

A virus is a genetic parasite that needs something else's life to keep it going. It can't reproduce on its own, so its survival is dependent on it hijacking something else (your cells) and reproducing. 

Every coronavirus is a type of virus that has an envelope around its core and little spikes sticking out all around it—hence the name "corona" AKA crown—that can infect all kinds of mammals. 

The name of the specific coronavirus spreading around the world right now. It infects healthy cells in order to hang out in your body. 

The name of the disease that you have if your body is infected with SARS-CoV-2 and experiencing symptoms—like cough and fever. COVID is short for COronaVirus Infectious Disease, and the 19 is there because it was first found in 2019. Its severe cases cause severe pulmonary—problems with the lungs and breathing—disease.


Someone who shows symptoms, has the virus in their body, and therefore has COVID-19.

Someone who has the virus in their body, but isn't showing any symptoms. This person can't be distinguished from healthy people on the outside, but inside, they've got the virus—making it possible for them to unknowingly share the virus with someone else.

Incubation period
The amount of time a virus can live inside a body. For COVID-19 it's 14 days. You may get sick during those 14 days, or "by chance or by luck" says Khaperskyy, you won't. But it's the period when the virus kicks into gear, multiplying among your cells. 


Literally means “with weak immune system,” says Khaperskyy.
People who have a harder time fighting infection. "People could become immunocompromised because of their genes (inherited) or diseases (AIDS being a severe example), but very often immunity can be decreased by drugs, like immunosuppressants prescribed after organ transplantation to prevent rejection."

Khaperskyy adds that having an autoimmune disease is not the same as being immunocompromised. “Autoimmune diseases like asthma are risk factors for COVID or flu because they add to poor respiratory system function, but unless someone takes strong immunosuppressants to control their autoimmune condition, having an autoimmune disease is not exactly the same as being immunocompromised. (Low immune system function = bad; overreactive immune system = bad. But they’re not the same. )”

COVID-19 is spread through droplets of mucus from your airways and mouth and direct contact. If you've got coronavirus cells in your body and you sneeze on your hand, the coronavirus cells are now on your hand. If you open a door, and someone comes along and touches that door then touches their mouth, nose or eyes, they've introduced the virus into their body and COVID-19 has 14 days to fight for its survival, multiplying and trying to out-muscle their healthy cells.

Pick your nose and leave the booger under the side of your chair in the waiting room? Someone sits down after you and touches your booger, then, picks their own nose? SARS-CoV-2 is now in their body. Run into someone while rushing to get on the bus—face to face—they say “omg sorry”? The saliva that leaves their lips while talking gets in your eye? You’ve got SARS-CoV-2 in your body. Making out? Spread. Sex? Spread. Picking someone else’s nose and eating it? Spread. "That's why handwashing is so important," says Khaperskyy. It cuts out a lot of the possibility for transmission. 

Social distancing
Right now, this is the best way to slow the spread of COVID-19. It means limiting your interaction with people. Skip public gatherings, pass on handshakes and hugs, don't socialize at lunch, stay two metres away from whoever you're around. Khaperskyy says you can still pass the virus while practising social isolation, but it limits your chance of doing so. "The further you are, the fewer chances for [the virus] to jump."

For when you are feeling sick but haven't been tested (or have been tested and have a confirmed COVID-19 result). Give that virus 14 days to incubate in your body and no one else's. No interaction with anyone. If you get sick, your body will fight it off, or you'll end up in hospital—where self-isolation continues but with fancy suits to keep those who need to care for you healthy. It's now your job to get as few people as possible sick.

As per recommendations from the province of Nova Scotia and Health Canada, if you're coming back to Canada from abroad, this baby is for you. We don't know if you have the virus, and you may not even feel sick. But it'll take 14 days to ensure you don't have it (remember, no symptoms doesn't equal no COVID-19). 

Flatten the curve
This is some math shit, baby. But it boils down to slowing the spread. When something is increasing, it can do so in a linear way—the same number of new cases a day—or exponentially—doubling or tripling each day. Khaperskyy says when "no one is immune to the virus, because it's new, it's very easy for the virus to infect pretty much anyone. That's how the person who is infected can infect not just one but more than one person during their interactions, causing exponential growth." Exponential growth means everyone who can get sick, gets sick over a very short time period, totally overwhelming our  health-care systems and services. Flattening the curve means hoping for a linear increase. The same number of new cases each day, increasing the total number of patients over time, but in a way that allows the health care system to cope, because by the time your neighbour gets sick, you'll have recovered. 

Community spread
When the virus can't be traced back to a single traveller. Nova Scotia's chief medical officer Robert Strang forecasted community spread of COVID-19 in the province on Tuesday: "if it's not here today, it's likely coming in the coming days." Social isolation is Nova Scotia’s best defence against community spread.

Health protection act

The law in Nova Scotia that gives the chief medical officer of health the power to make changes in daily life in order to protect the public and prevent, detect, manage, and contain health threats such as communicable diseases like COVID-19. It “accords sufficient weight to ethical values especially individual liberty, protection of the public from harm, reciprocity, and privacy and confidentiality of health information.”

Editor's note: Are there words or terms you wanted to see on this list? Please leave a comment below and we will track down the answer as best as we can.

Come back here or check with NS public health for the latest reliable updates. In the meantime, wash your hands, cover your cough, wipe commonly used surfaces and stay home if you feel sick.

About The Author

Caora McKenna

Caora is the City Editor at The Coast, where she writes about everything from city hall to police and housing issues. She’s been with The Coast since 2017, when she began as the publication’s Copy Editor.

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