In Vancouver and British Columbia, we're lucky enough to have had far fewer cases of coronavirus than most Western regions. I might describe this as a "relatively mild epidemic". However the word epidemic seems like an intense word that'd be used only for things beyond a certain level of spread or intensity (I'm curious whether this is the technical meaning, but it does feel like the colloquial/connotational one).

So, what are alternative words to use? I say 'alternatives' since they needn't be synonyms, but need only point at the same class of phenomena (ie. they could apply to the current situation).

(Broader discussion of alternative phrases - of varying levels of intensity or heaviness - that one might use about the current situation more broadly would be interesting. But I believe I should keep the core question narrowly delimited for StackExchange.)

  • Consider endemic. These words have more specific, defined meanings within epidemiology, and may be precisely defined by a particular author.
    – Xanne
    Commented Apr 30, 2020 at 20:36

4 Answers 4


I would suggest an older English noun that could be used as an alternative is:


This has the advantage that because of its use in other contexts you can qualify it with adjectives that are not specific to disease. Thus, there are possibilities of extent such as:

Limited outbreak
Restricted outbreak
Extensive outbreak
Major outbreak
Minor outbreak

as well as:

Serious outbreak
Mild outbreak
Contained outbreak

with more medical connotations.

The key is perhaps to think about English rather than Greek.

Footnote: Dictionary Support

The first definition of epidemic as a noun in my iPhone Chambers dictionary (although not online) is:

  1. An outbreak of a disease that affects great numbers

This suggests that “mild epidemic” is something of an oxymoron, and it is worth mentioning that the word epidemic first came into English (from the French) as an adjective meaning widespread.

Outbreak, however, is qualifiable in the way I suggest: for example “limited outbreak” and “minor outbreak” are used in relation to Ebola virus in a Wikipedia article on the subject. Although only the opinions of the authors, an article “When Does an Outbreak Become an Epidemic?” on the Merriam–Webster site may be of interest.

  • Yes. Someone I know who has been a professional virologist uses this term, for infections short of epidemic proportions. And noticing your own profile I sense it is the preferred nomenclature of the medical profession generally.
    – WS2
    Commented Apr 30, 2020 at 20:43

I can't see any other possibility than having recourse to rather long phrases, such a for instance the following.

  • a mildly contagious spread

The term "mild epidemic" itself is currently being used: ref. 1, ref. 2, ref. 3, ref. 4.

  • The term mild epidemic may be ambiguous, in that it may be unclear (unless the context makes it clear) whether mild qualifies the contagiousness of the disease or its severity.
    – jsw29
    Commented May 1, 2020 at 16:02

Epidemic is already the milder word. You are probably confusing it with pandemic, which fits the exaggerated sense of the meaning of what you seem to think of as “epidemic”.

This essay, Merriam-Webster dictionary, illustrates the nuance of meaning between both words.


For a number of cases greater than what would be expected for a certain region at a certain time, I suggest "a cluster of..."
However, with 2,087 cases of COVID-19 reported so far, I'd still say there is an epidemics in British Columbia.

According to the CDC

  • Endemic refers to the constant presence and/or usual prevalence of a disease or infectious agent in a population within a geographic area.
  • Hyperendemic refers to persistent, high levels of disease occurrence.
  • Epidemic refers to an increase, often sudden, in the number of cases of a disease above what is normally expected in that population in that area. (the expected number of cases can be zero)
  • Outbreak carries the same definition of epidemic, but is often used for a more limited geographic area.
  • Cluster refers to an aggregation of cases grouped in place and time that are suspected to be greater than the number expected, even though the expected number may not be known.
  • Pandemic refers to an epidemic that has spread over several countries or continents, usually affecting a large number of people.
  • 1
    It should be noted that these are the definitions that the Center for Disease Control (of the United States) has stipulated for use in its communications; they are not dictionary definitions aiming to capture how these words are used among the speakers of English language at large.
    – jsw29
    Commented Apr 30, 2020 at 21:41
  • @jsw29 The CDC is considered a worldwide authority on the subject.
    – Centaurus
    Commented Apr 30, 2020 at 22:23

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