Media coverage of the coronavirus causing the disease COVID-19 has introduced numerous previously unfamiliar terms into daily usage. Four that have especially caught my attention are throughput, exogenous, titer, and fomites.
When I first heard this word being thrown about, I thought it must be recently invented political jargon, like walkback:
walkback: Verb. to retreat from or distance oneself from a previously stated opinion or position. First documented use, 2000.
In fact, throughput as a noun has been around since at least the nineteenth century. In current usage, it also functions as an adjective.
Like the more familiar input and output, the noun throughput has to do with production. It refers to the amount or number of units passing through a system. It could refer to the amount of oil going through a processing plant or the number of customers buying hot dogs at a food truck. Here are two examples of the use of throughput:
Patient turnover, or throughput, through nursing units can significantly impact the workloads of nurses.
Facilities considering the purchase of these instruments should base their decision on the available assays and the throughput capacity of the system.
Literally, exogenous means “growing on the outside.” The opposite term is endogenous, “growing from the inside.”
An exogenous disease is one introduced into the body from outside. Food poisoning, for example, is an exogenous ailment, as is the common cold.
titer (Br. titre)
Asked if it was safe to touch packages received in the post during the coronavirus pandemic, immunologist Anthony Fauci used the word titer to describe the amount of virus that might be present on cardboard or other substances handled by an infected person. This is what he said:
For the most part, the titration of it and the titer of it on surfaces is probably measured in a couple of hours.
Titration is a chemical term to describe “the process of analysis by means of standard solutions.” Titer (Br. titre) is “the strength of a solution or the concentration of a substance in solution as determined by titration.”
Dr. Fauci concluded that, by the time an article went through the mail and arrived at its intended destination, any residue/titer on it would be undetectable or present in such a tiny concentration as to be negligible.
He did, however, go on to emphasize that other objects, such as doorknobs, could present a danger of transference and needed to be disinfected—which brings us to fomites.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, fomites is the plural of fomes and fomite is “an incorrect back-formation from fomites.” According to Merriam-Webster, fomite is the only acceptable singular form. The only definition M-W gives for fomes is “a genus of bracket fungi.”
The OED offers a definition pertinent to the current discussion:
fomes: Noun. Any porous substance capable of absorbing and retaining contagious effluvia’ (Mayne).
In current usage, fomites are any substances—porous or otherwise—on which contagious titer may exist.
Fomites are everywhere! Here are a few:
Not to worry though. As everyone knows by now, the best way to protect oneself from titer lurking on those omnipresent fomites is to wash one’s hands for twenty seconds with soapy water after exposure.
Just think! By improving the throughput of personal handwashing, people can reduce the spread of exogenous afflictions like the flu.