Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization speaks during a news conference on updates regarding on the novel coronavirus COVID-19, at the WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, Monday, March 9, 2020. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP)Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization speaks during a news conference on updates regarding on the novel coronavirus COVID-19, at the WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, Monday, March 9, 2020. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP)

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization speaks during a news conference on updates regarding on the novel coronavirus COVID-19, at the WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, Monday, March 9, 2020. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP)Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization speaks during a news conference on updates regarding on the novel coronavirus COVID-19, at the WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, Monday, March 9, 2020. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP)

Q&A: What the WHO pandemic declaration means

Some questions and answers about the declaration

The new coronavirus outbreak is now a pandemic. So what does that mean?

“Pandemic” has nothing to do with how serious the illness is. It just means a disease is spreading widely.

The head of the World Health Organization, which made the declaration Wednesday, said the U.N. health agency is deeply concerned about the alarming levels of spread.

But at the same time WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesushe made clear the declaration didn’t mean that countries should give up trying to contain the virus, which has infected more than 120,000 people around the world and killed more than 4,300.

“We should double down and we should be more aggressive. That’s what we are saying,” Tedros said.

ALSO READ: World Health Organization declares COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic

Some questions and answers about the declaration:

WHAT DOES THE DECLARATION DO?

The label triggers governments to activate preparedness plans and possibly take emergency procedures to protect the public, such as more drastic travel and trade restrictions.

WHO already had declared COVID-19 an international emergency. And where the virus hasn’t yet spread, hospitals and clinics around the world have been preparing for a surge of coronavirus patients on top of the everyday illnesses they treat.

Dr. Michael Ryan, the WHO emergencies chief, cautioned that use of the word pandemic to describe the outbreak “is not a trigger for anything other than more aggressive, more intensive action.”

The term also is likely to stoke global anxiety, something the U.N. health agency was sensitive to. Previously, Tedros acknowledged the word itself “may certainly cause fear” without preventing any infection or saving a single life.

WHAT GOES INTO THE DECISION?

Exactly when enough places have enough infections to declare a pandemic isn’t a black-and-white decision. But generally, the WHO looks for sustained community outbreaks on different continents.

In other words, people who were in places where the virus was circulating have known risks. If they get sick, the chain of transmission is obvious. And as long as health authorities can trace those chains, an outbreak isn’t yet deemed out of control.

But when people start becoming infected without obvious links, that signals wider spread of an infection throughout a population, key for a pandemic declaration.

For flu, the WHO typically calls a pandemic when a new virus is spreading in two regions of the world; COVID-19 is now spreading in parts of four.

WHAT WAS THE LAST GLOBAL PANDEMIC?

The last disease the WHO declared a pandemic was a new flu strain, initially called “swine flu,” in 2009. That decision came after the new H1N1 flu had been spreading in multiple countries for about six weeks. Today, that strain is what’s known as “endemic” worldwide — it became part of every season’s regular flu outbreak.

This is the first time this kind of virus — a coronavirus — has been labeled a pandemic, “but at the same time, we believe that it will be the first also to be able to be contained or controlled,” Tedros said.

OUTBREAK? EPIDEMIC? PANDEMIC? WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?

An outbreak is a sudden rise in cases of a disease in a particular place. An epidemic is a large outbreak. A pandemic means a global epidemic.

Experts point out that the word “pandemic” is sure to reverberate, even though many people may not understand what it means.

“The word hasn’t been suitably explained and made clear,” said Ian Mackay, who studies viruses at Australia’s University of Queensland. “It has been kept in a drawer and only used at the worst time. So, of course people have fear of it.”

ALSO READ: COVID-19 concerns ‘spike’ in B.C. leading to ‘significant’ behaviour changes — poll

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN ABOUT THE DISEASE’S SEVERITY?

Pandemic is a scary word but it has nothing to do with how serious the illness is. It just means a disease is spreading widely. There can be pandemics of mild illness, like that H1N1 flu turned out to be in 2009.

Regular seasonal flu has a death rate of 0.1%. Exactly how lethal this new coronavirus will be isn’t yet clear, and may vary from place to place especially as countries first grapple with an influx of cases.

But COVID-19 does seem less deadly than its cousins SARS, severe acute respiratory syndrome, and MERS, Middle East respiratory syndrome, even though it is spreading more easily than those earlier outbreaks.

For most, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, and most recover in a couple of weeks. For a few, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illnesses, including pneumonia.

AP Medical Writer Maria Cheng in London contributed to this report.

The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Lauran Neergaard, The Associated Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The RDEK is accepting applications for the CBT’s Community Initiatives and Affected Areas Programs. File Photo)
CBT’s Community Initiatives and Affected Areas Programs accept proposals

Sparwood reminds residents to apply for the grants prior to Jan. 18 at 2 p.m.

A woman wearing a protective face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19 walks past a mural in Victoria, B.C., on Monday, Dec. 7, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Marissa Tiel
115 new COVID-19 cases, no new deaths in Interior Health

There are now a total of 4,970 cases in the region

Sparwood mayor David Wilks was in attendance at the street party to discuss potential changes to Centennial Square.
Closing the border not viable: Wilks

Sparwood Mayor David Wilks said shutting B.C. just wasn’t possible

Trees destroyed a Shoreacres home during a wind storm Jan. 13, 2021. Photo: Submitted
Shoreacres resident flees just before tree crushes house

Pamala DeRosa is thankful to be alive

The trails at Sparwood Heights are groomed by volunteers of the Sunset Ridge Ski Society (SRSS). (Photo contributed by the SRSS)
Sparwood cross-country club reports record membership

The SRSS has 180 members signed up for the 2020-21 season

A woman wears a face mask and shield to curb the spread of COVID-19 while walking in North Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday, January 6, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
536 COVID cases, 7 deaths reported as B.C. find its first case of South African variant

Henry said 69,746 people have received their first dose of the COVID vaccine.

Alan Davidson was sentenced to almost six years for abusing seven boys in the late 1970s and early 1990s. (Canadian Press file)
Full parole granted to former Mountie, sports coach convicted of sex abuse of boys

Alan Davidson convicted of abusing boys in B.C. and Saskatchewan in late ’70s, early ’90s

The first COVID-19 vaccine arrives in B.C. in temperature-controlled containers, Dec. 13, 2020. (B.C. government)
More vaccine arrives as B.C. struggles with remote COVID-19 cases

Long-term care homes remain focus for public health

Basil Fuller. Photo: Watershed Productions
Missing Voices: Touchstones museum profiles underrepresented groups

Touchstones Nelson interviewed 15 people about their experiences living here

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

The first Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine dose in Canada is prepared at The Michener Institute in Toronto on Monday, Dec. 14, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Doses of COVID-19 vaccine expected in 60 B.C. First Nations by next week

B.C. has allocated 25,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine to First Nations for distribution by the end of February

Kamloops-South Thompson MLA Todd Stone questions the NDP government in the B.C. legislature, Feb. 25, 2020. (Hansard TV)
Todd Stone says he’s not running for B.C. Liberal leadership

Kamloops MLA was widely viewed as a front-runner

Wireless voice and data services are out for those on Telus as of Thursday (Jan. 14) afternoon across Western Canada, Telus Support said in a recent Tweet. (Black Press file photo)
UPDATE: Telus services restored across Western Canada

Telus said they are monitoring the situation to ensure connections remain stable

Screenshot from video.
2 students arrested in assault of transgender girl at Lower Mainland school

Mother says daughter was targeted because of how she identifies

Most Read