Despite the efforts of scientists and science journalists to define and contextualize public health information, the exhausting and rapidly changing nature of the pandemic means that it can be difficult to keep pace with the vocabulary needed to understand what’s happening. I hope this guide helps as a reference during the transition to endemicity (see below).

Pandemic: A disease prevalent in the whole world.

Endemic: When a disease is prevalent in developing countries, but wealthy countries are back to normal.

Variant: When you bang on your steering wheel and yell, “Go to hell!” at a pedestrian for jaywalking because you recently saw a tweet about someone whose aunt died from COVID even though she was fully vaccinated.

Vaccine: Something that makes you feel like absolute hell for thirty-six hours but you also might not notice at all and undeniably protects society as a whole but might not protect you specifically, but if it doesn’t 100 percent protect you then it still offers at least some protection and you need to get one if you want to gain admittance to this black box production of Waiting for Godot that takes place in a CIA black site.

Vaccine skeptic: Someone who has not received the vaccine yet, because, guided by the work of Descartes, they believe the only justified attitude with respect to a field of propositions F is to suspend judgment.

Overcoming vaccine skepticism: Since most vaccine skeptics rely heavily on logical conclusions drawn from the evil demon scenario at the end of Descartes’s First Meditation, countering them with Spinoza’s position on epistemology will likely lead to semantic holism, anti-dualism, naturalism, and an appointment at CVS.

Breakthrough infection: When an infection has quietly been doing excellent work for ten-plus years and finally gets a chance at the big time.

Dr. Fauci: A lightning rod for your rage, admiration, gratitude, or whatever bottled-up emotions you’ve been conditioned to feel about public health experts by social forces you haven’t even begun to understand.

Infection: When you’re playin’ with Quentin by the creek and he accidentally nicks his shin on a barbed-wire fence while climbin’ on the far bank, and you tell him good to wash that out with soap and water. He said he would, but on the way home he got distracted chasin’ down a mare got out and forgot to. Later that week you hear Ma and Pa by the woodstove talkin’ to Doctor Matthiessen and they’re usin’ words like “gangrene” and “ampustation” or “amputition” or somethin’, and you just know things around the homestead ain’t gonna be the same again.

Infectiousness: When you accidentally send someone to the ICU because you breathed too close to them while eating a doughnut.

Butt plug: A sex toy inserted into the rectum for pleasure. Not technically a public health term, but I think it’s important to have candid discussions about sex.

Booster: Someone whose financial assistance made it possible for the Bloomingdale East COVIDs to compete at the state meet.

Superspreader event: When a virus has the performance of a lifetime at a real estate developers conference and you can’t help but tip your cap and take the L.

Double-blind study: A research study in which neither the researcher nor the subject knows why the flames are engulfing us.

Infectious disease experts: People who wear full hunting camo to go grocery shopping, YouTube chiropractors who look like animatronic dolls with too much makeup, and people who caused their employers’ servers to crash because they opened a mysterious email attachment are all considered infectious disease experts.

Misinformation: When a piece of information hasn’t gotten married or has decided to keep her last name.

Information: A tweet about “Omnicron” posted to an Instagram story, which is followed by a TikTok posted to the same Instagram story of someone dancing on an icy deck and slipping and falling.

Jesus: Who to trust regarding twenty-first-century public health emergencies.

Right-wing minister: Person who preaches that God will protect the faithful from COVID and that public health measures aren’t needed, until his congregants start dying, at which point God’s will is impossible to fathom and we need to have faith that He is doing what is best and we will receive our reward in Heaven.

Fear: Definitely not the only thing to fear.

Mask: What you wore during most social interactions long before COVID happened.

Remdesivir: The price we’re willing to pay to see a Hall & Oates cover band at that music venue in town that’s an active fire hazard.

2022: Sometimes confused with 2021 and 2020, it is nonetheless a different year.

Anxiety: On balance, a pretty reasonable response to the above.

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Frequent contributor Chas Gillespie’s most recent project is a song titled “Things People Asked Me When I Worked at the Public Library.”