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Dr. Erin Lipp handles samples of wastewater from the three water reclamation plants in the Athens area on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020, at the environmental health sciences building in Athens, Georgia. With flu season just around the corner, the Department of Public Health is offering free testing in Athens this week. (Photo/Julian Alexander, jalexander@randb.com)

Flu season occurs annually, typically peaking between December and February. This year, however, there’s also the coronavirus pandemic that has killed over 220,000 Americans.

Some years of influenza are worse than others — an estimated 61,000 Americans died of the flu in 2017-18 compared to 12,000 six years prior. 

COVID-19 and the flu, or influenza, are both respiratory illnesses spread by droplets in the air. They have similar prevention methods — wearing a mask and hand-washing helps stop the spread of both. They also have similar symptoms, including body aches and shortness of breath. 

What separates the two? For one, they are caused by different viruses. 

COVID-19 is the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, or severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2. The flu is caused by influenza viruses. 

COVID-19 seems to spread easier than the flu and causes more serious illnesses in some people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While the illnesses share many symptoms, COVID-19 patients have experienced a loss or change in taste and smell more often than flu patients, St. Mary’s internal medicine physician Brandon Taylor said. 

In addition, there is already a vaccine in place for the flu. It’s possible that one or more COVID-19 vaccines are authorized and available before the end of the year, according to the CDC. If there is a limited supply at first, experts may recommend some groups receive the vaccine before others.

The Georgia Department of Public Health launched a campaign to encourage all residents over the age of six months to get a flu shot by the end of October. If you don’t get a flu shot by the end of the month, Taylor still recommends getting one. 

“Now more than ever, influenza vaccination is critical not only to protect people from getting sick, but to reduce the burden on our healthcare system already caring for COVID-19 patients,” DPH commissioner Kathleen Toomey said in an Oct. 13 news release. “Even if the vaccine doesn’t prevent illness from flu completely, it can help reduce the severity and risk of serious complications.”

If you feel sick with flu-like or COVID-like symptoms, Taylor recommends self-isolating as if you had COVID-19. You can also call a doctor and book a virtual appointment. 

“Telehealth visits have a major role during the pandemic,” Taylor said. “A lot of offices have migrated over to that platform as an additional option. … It can be helpful to guide the patients to next steps and what to look out for. And it also helps protect healthcare workers.” 

Further complicating matters is the fact that individuals can have COVID-19 and the flu at the same time, according to the CDC. A rapid influenza diagnostic test (RIDT) tests for the flu but wouldn’t rule out the possibility of having COVID-19. 

The CDC recently developed a test that can check for COVID-19 and the flu at the same time. It will be used at qualified public health laboratories and will not replace the standard COVID-19 test, according to the CDC’s website.

People need to continue taking precautions, internal medicine physician Thomas Wells said in a Piedmont Athens Regional news release.

“This is why prevention measures like washing your hands, wearing a mask in public and watching your distance are more important than ever,” Wells said. “These prevention measures can help reduce your risk of flu and COVID-19 illness and can prevent these illnesses from spreading to others.”