Friday, South Dakota officials reported the first influenza death of the 2020-2021 season. The death was reported in Potter County, and the individual was in the 80 to 89-year age group. To protect patient confidentiality, additional information about the deceased is not being released.

“Our sympathy is with the family. Their loss serves as a reminder to us all that influenza can be a very serious illness,” State Epidemiologist Dr. Joshua Clayton said. “It is not too late to get vaccinated for this flu season, and if you haven’t yet received your annual flu vaccination, the time to do so is now.”

Indeed, the the flu is a “very common, contagious” illness that causes a wide variety of symptoms — such as fevers, headaches, fatigue, chills, body aches, cough, and nausea —that range from mild to deadly, according to Dr. Susan Hoover, an infectious disease specialist at Sanford Health in Sioux Falls.

Sound familiar?

The most common symptoms of the flu are also symptoms of COVID-19. The similarities make it difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between the two illnesses.

“In a pandemic year, your first thought when you start having symptoms is, ‘I have COVID,’” Dr. Robert Johnson, a family medicine doctor at Avera Medical Group Pierre, said. “It’s tricky because there’s so much crossover of symptoms, but you can prevent worrying about COVID if it is just the flu.”

The only difference between flu and COVID symptoms is that flu patients do not report a loss of taste or smell. COVID patients have also reported having more trouble breathing than flu patients, Johnson said.

“We can’t differentiate without a [COVID] test because many symptoms are very similar,” Hoover said.

But an individual is vaccinated against the flu virus, when they develop cold and flu-like symptoms, it is easier for healthcare professionals to rule out the flu.

“They’re two different things, so you could be infected with one and develop both — that would be very hard on anyone, especially on higher risk populations,” Hoover said.

Serious illness brought on by the flu that requires hospitalization is something health care workers are hoping to avoid this year, in order to accommodate the rising numbers of hospitalized COVID patients.

During a regular year, there are still “ a lot of benefits” to getting a flu shot, Johnson said.

“You either don’t get it, or if you do become infected, there are less severe symptoms,” Johnson said.

Getting a flu vaccine also reduces the risk of spreading the virus to those around you, which could include someone in a population that is at higher risk of serious illness or death, Hoover said. A flu shot can reduce your risk of contracting the flu by 50% in an average year, she added.

If one gets a flu shot every year, he or she will build up immunity to various strains of influenza and over time decrease chances of contracting the flu.

Flu shots are easy, accessible, and safe, officials said. If you have insurance, the flu shot is usually free. The pharmacies at both Walgreens and Walmart offer them, and you can also contact your primary care doctor to ask if they can provide one.

For people without insurance, federally-funded community health centers often offer payments on a sliding scale, and the state health department can also provide vaccinations for children who equality for the federal Vaccines for Children program. To find a vaccine provider near you, visit https://doh.sd.gov/local-offices/vaccine-providers/.

And, as always, you can protect yourself against getting sick from COVID and the flu by washing your hands, staying away from large crowds, and staying home if you are feeling sick. Until a COVID vaccine can be widely distributed, officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend wearing a mask when social distancing cannot be achieved.

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