What is COVID-19?

Learner Series:

What is COVID-19?


Remember that the information on this site is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for medical treatment or advice by a health care professional. Readers should always consult their personal physician to determine their physical and mental health needs. NEVER DISREGARD PROFESSIONAL MEDICAL ADVICE OR DELAY SEEKING MEDICAL TREATMENT BECAUSE OF SOMETHING YOU HAVE READ ON OR ACCESSED THROUGH THIS WEB SITE.

Please, if you feel sick or are concerned about having COVID-19 see your doctor!

Table of Contents

What is COVID-19?: A Brief History

COVID-19 is a type of Coronavirus. Just like a poodle is just one of many different types of dogs, there are also many different types of coronaviruses.  The name coronavirus is derived from Latin, corona, and means “wreath” or “crown”. It was given this name based on it’s unique appearance under an electron microscope. 

We’ve known about Coronavirus since at least the 1930’s – first observing the infection in animals. Later in the 1960’s we saw how they could infect humans and cause the typical cold symptoms. Famous coronaviruses that you may have heard of include SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV.

COVID-19 Actually stands for COronaVIrus Disease-2019 and its original name was 2019-nCOV with the n standing for novel.

COVID Structure

All Coronaviruses are RNA Viruses. This means they are..

  1. Not alive. Unlike Bacteria.
  2. Tiny like all other viruses.
  3. Prone to mutation. (DNA viruses are much more stable)
  4. Ringed by Spikes. (Where Coronavirus gets its name from)

What does this mean for you?

  1. Because it’s a virus, it means antibiotics won’t work on it.
  2. Because it’s so tiny, it means it can easily diffuse and spread.
  3. Because it’s prone to mutation, it means it’s hard for us to create vaccines for it.
  4. Because of its structure, it’s really good at getting into your cells. 

COVID-19 Symptoms

According to the WHO (World Health Organization) the most common symptoms are typically what you’d expect with a cold. 

  • Fever, Dry Cough, and Tiredness

Less Common Symptoms Include:

  • Muscle and Joint Pains
  • Sore Throat & Headaches
  • Diarrhea
  • Conjunctivitis (Think Pink Eye)
  • Loss of Taste and Smell
  • Rashes

Really Serious Symptoms

  • Trouble Breathing & Shortness of Breath
  • Chest Pain or Pressure
  • Loss of Speech or Movement
Now you may be wondering, what happens to make it so that some people get really bad COVID-19 symptoms but others are totally asymptomatic? That’s a great question!
  1. Some people’s immune system may already recognize the virus.
  2. A process called disease tolerance, where our body just ignores the virus (hence no symptoms)

Did You Know: The Medical Students on BreakThru who are in their clinical rotations are encountering patients with the symptoms listed above each and every day. 

Ask them about their experiences in our groups, forums, or activity feed! 

COVID-19 Mortality & Morbidity

COVID is a scary disease. You’ve probably seen some memes online that make light of the mortality rate. Implying that 99.98% people survive or some other nonsense. Fortunately, you’re in the right place to start understanding the real toll of COVID-19. Let’s look at these two charts below that come from highly trusted sources. 

COVID isn't as deadly as COVID, but think about those numbers!

COVID will kill 3.4 people out of every 100 it infects. 3.4% might not seem scary at first, but let’s try to make it more personal. An average person has 338 friends on Facebook. If each friend got COVID that means 11 of them will die from it.

Scroll through your friend’s list and consider what kind of impact losing 3.4% of them would have on you and their families.

An average town size is about 10,000 people. So according to these stats about 5 people in every average sized town in the United State will die from COVID-19. It’s important to note that this metric includes those who were never infected with the disease. 

Now everyone is at the same level of risk for dying from COVID-19. Let’s talk about something called comorbidity. Some conditions make a person more likely to suffer from worse effects of COVID-19. The reverse is true too! Some things might protect some people from COVID-19! When we talk about something making a disease risk worse, we’re talking a co-morbidity. 

COVID-19 attacks certain parts of our body more then others. Just look at the list of symptoms above. Remember those common and severe symptoms? Now think of all the chronic diseases that cause related problems. 

Some diseases and conditions that increase COVID-19 Risk.

  • Asthma
  • Diabetes
  • Hyperlipidemia
  • Hypertension
  • Immunocompromised State
  • CKD

COVID-19 Post Viral SymptomsThese statistics are scary enough on their own, and yet it doesn’t even take into account the long-term symptoms of COVID-19, which our co-founder Ali Tahir breaks down wonderfully hereThis is another scary aspect of COVID-19. Even if you beat the virus, you might have symptoms for a long time. Doctors are seeing patients all the time that have prolonged loss of smell or taste, cough, chest pain, anxiety, and so on. Viruses can also be teratogenic. So we’re also worried about what impact it’ll have on mothers and newborns, and if a baby will have any long-term problems from COVID, if their mother has it.

COVID-19 Transmission

The Following is Summarized and Excerpted from EMCRITCARE

  • COVID can be spread by direct contact and via airborne. There is also controversial evidence that while airborne transmission is dominant it’s also relatively inefficient. Airborne transmission therefore only occurs in a limited number of contexts (e.g. prolonged proximity). This is why wearing masks and social distancing are so effective!
  • People commonly transmit the disease while asymptomatic.  For example, speaking or singing can aerosolize virus which is transmitted to others within an enclosed indoor space (potentially triggering super-spreader events).
  • Lower humidity might serve to promote transmission, as aerosols can dehydrate and remain aloft for longer duration.

Tips to Help Avoid Aerosol Virus Transmission:

  • Masking is a primary strategy to reduce transmission.  Universal masking in the community (preferably with surgical masks) serves to reduce dispersal and inhalation of aerosols.
  • Physical distancing and adequate ventilation are extremely important.
  • There is much concern regarding “aerosol-generating procedures” (AGPs).  The number of aerosol-generating procedures has gradually been increased to encompass nearly any procedure involving the airway or mouth.  However, this is probably a failed paradigm.  Patients with COVID-19 are constantly generating aerosols by talking, coughing, or even simply breathing – so the concept of “aerosol-generating procedures” is a false dichotomy.  A better approach is to assume that patients with COVID-19 are continually generating aerosols and act accordingly.


So What’s More Contagious, the Flu or COVID-19?

Another thing that is often said on the internet is that your no more likely to catch COVID then you are the flu. This is false. Dr. LanFranco gives us a few reasons why

  1. COVID has smaller particles.
  2. COVID has a longer incubation.
  3. Flu Antibodies may last longer.
  4. Flu Has a Widely Used Vaccination.

Recognize that contagious doesn’t mean the same thing as transmission.

Transmission: How an illness is spread.
Contagiousness: How likely you are to get the virus.

One virus can hard to transmit but easy to catch and another can be be the reverse, easy to spread but hard to catch. 

Do Masks Work?

Another thing that is often said on the internet is that masks are worthless. However, the data tells us a very different story. Masks are extremely effective at controlling the transmission of COVID-19. Here’s another study that shows, even though the virus particles are small, they are carried in aerosols which are stopped by proper mask wearing.

So why did doctors initially recommend we don’t wear masks back in February and March of 2020? Part of it was because they didn’t know enough yet. There wasn’t yet enough information about COVID-19 transmission. For illnesses like the Flu, masks don’t have as big of an impact to the average person and we were applying what we know about the Flu to COVID-19. But we know now that COVID-19 is a very different beast. 

Conclusion: Masks Work. Wear Them.

Do the right thing and wear a mask. Don't tolerate other people not wearing masks. Realize that every time you wear a mask, it's an act of bravery and not of fear.

Why Do Some People Fight Wearing a Mask?

It is this writer’s opinion that people are generally anxious, fearful, and don’t like to be ordered what to do. Mask wearing can be uncomfortable and intrusive too. Sadly, mask wearing has also become political. It’s easy to fight wearing a mask and blame it on politics when you’re really just anxious and wearing the mask makes you even more anxious. For a few people out there, they really have been scared into thinking mask wearing is some sort of plot to control them. These people are especially worried and the thought of wearing a mask just sends them into anxiety overdrive. They often point to unrelated or loosely-related things as evidence supporting their refusal to wear masks.  We could probably write a huge research paper on what motivates people to not wear masks. But to keep this brief, we’ll just give you our advice.

Our Advice: Do the right thing and wear a mask. Don’t tolerate other people not wearing masks. Realize that every time you wear a mask, it’s an act of bravery not fear. 

COVID-19 Vaccines

Let’s look at some basic facts about how Vaccines work courtesy of the CDC’s website

“COVID-19 vaccines help our bodies develop immunity to the virus that causes COVID-19 without us having to get the illness. Different types of vaccines work in different ways to offer protection, but with all types of vaccines, the body is left with a supply of “memory” T-lymphocytes as well as B-lymphocytes that will remember how to fight that virus in the future.”

Getting our body to make those B and T cells that are primed to fight COVID-19 is a big deal. Think of a normal COVID-19 infection as a sneak attack. Our body isn’t expecting it. With a vaccination are defenses are all in place and when COVID-19 comes in, it gets overwhelmed by our B’s and T’s.


Vaccine Types

So the newest types of vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna are the mRNA ones. These are pretty impressive and use a totally harmless protein unique to COVID-19 to teach our bodies to recognize COVID-19. Remember when we talked about the structure of COVID-19? How it was ringed by spikes? Well, that’s pretty unique to Coronaviruses and we can train our body to specifically recognize COVID-19’s spike protein. Think of it like how we teach drug-sniffing dogs. That’s like what’s going on with our COVID-19 vaccines!

COVID-19 What You Can Do!

  1. Wear Your Mask.
    • Medical Masks >>> Cloth Masks
  2. Get Your COVID-19 Vaccination.
  3. Socially Distance
    • Don’t Socially Isolate!
    • Stay connected to friends and family using tech.
    • Reach out to people who maybe socially isolated using letters, calls, and other safe means.
  4. Be A Role Model for Safe Behavior
    • Encourage other people to be safe via your behavior
  5. Allow Yourself to Be Scared and Anxious.
    • These are overwhelming times for all of us!
  6. Learn to Say No!
    • If friends want you to hangout in person. Learn to be comfortable saying no. You’ll be helping them.
  7. Be Aware of Peer Pressure at Any Age.
  8. Share COVID-19 Resources on Social Media.
  9. Learn About Good vs Bad Research.
  10. Call Out False COVID-19 Meme’s with Sympathy. 

COVID-19 Resources

  1. Dr. Maragakis. Coronavirus Disease 2019 vs. the Flu Hopkins Medicine.
  2. Henry Ford Health System Staff. Why Is COVID-19 More Contagious Than The Flu? Henry Ford.
  3. Peeples, Lynn. Face masks: what the data say Nature Magazine
  4. Staff Writer, The Immune System—The Body’s Defense Against Infection CDC.

Insightful and Helpful Graphics!

1918 Baseball players wear masks during flu epidemic.
The impact of staying at home.
The impact of staying at home.


02. MYTH

You can only spread COVID-19 if you have symptoms.

This is totally false. Sneezing and coughing do make it easier to spread COVID-19, but you don't need to sneeze or cough to be a spreader. If you have a COVID-19 infection then every time you breath, talk, touch your face, eyes, nose, mouth you're spreading the virus.

04. MYTH

Masks are Dangerous

They can be uncomfortable for people not used to wearing them, but with rare exception, they are NOT dangerous. Surgeons wear masks for hours, all day long, every day. Just remember, COVID is much more dangerous to a person with lung problems then a face mask.

06. MYTH

COVID-19 is No More Dangerous then the Flu

We know the disease is significantly more dangerous then the flu. Why? Easy asymptomatic transmission and serious symptoms.

08. MYTH

COVID-19 Was Man-made​

At this time we have no evidence that COVID-19 was man-made. We only have conspiracy theories.

01. COVID-19

Not Coronavirus

As future doctors you want to be specific in your language. Remember that this is COVID-19, and just one type of Coronavirus!

03. FACT

COVID-19's Impact Goes Beyond Mortality

Simplifying COVID-19's impact to a case-fatality rate downplays just how dangerous it really is. Remember those long-lasting effects that we talked about? Imagine not being able to exercise like you used to, or not because able to taste or smell for another six months.

05. FACT

Social Distancing is Effective!

Due to the airborne nature of the disease, having that physical distance between multiple people gives you a lot of leeway for the viral particles to dissipate.

07. FACT

Your Actions Make a Difference!

Times can feel hopeless and the effect of wearing masks and washing your hands seems hard to perceive, but your actions are making a difference.

09. FACT

There is always more to learn

As we progress, new information will come out, both about the virus and the vaccine. That information may contradict what we currently know, and that's okay. That's how science works.

Related Articles