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

From medical equipment to water treatment, Teck Trail is an essential service

” … Trail operations is one of a few, and in some cases, the only North American supplier.”

Kootenay gas prices among the highest in B.C

Gas prices are up to 10 cents higher than other neighbouring B.C. regions

Man launches West Kootenay shuttle service for those in need

Business owner Mike Sherwood said he’s been getting ten call requests a day from people

West Kootenay residents stranded in Peru seek a way home

Three West Kootenay residents are in remote places, unable to get to Lima’s international airport

Apartments evacuated during police stand-off

The incident occurred at Grand Forks apartment building on March 28

B.C. records first at-home death from COVID-19, but 70+ hospital patients have recovered

Total of 970 novel coronavirus cases in B.C., with the majority in the Lower Mainland area

District reports case of COVID-19 in Elkford

Owner Ahmed El-Maddah requests any customer who visited pharmacy on March 17 self-isolate

BC Ferries able to restrict travel for sick passengers

Ferries working on schedule shifts to keep workers safe

Canada expands 75% wage subsidy to COVID-19 affected businesses of all sizes: Trudeau

Program will provide up to $847 per week for each worker

Pay parking suspended at B.C. hospitals due to COVID-19

Temporary free parking reduces need for keypads, contact

Helping those at risk, one piece of paper at a time through ‘isolation communication’

Simple paper tool during pandemic making its way across Canada thanks to social media.

‘Back to school, in a virtual way’ for B.C. students in COVID-19 pandemic

Province adds online resources to help parents at home

Canadian COVID-19 round-up: Air Canada cuts 15,000 jobs, 90% of flights

Comprehensive Canadian news update as of 2:30 p.m., Monday, March 30.

Most Read